Let the paring begin

Mar 12, 2017 By Steven R. Peck

As schools cut back under orders from the

Legislature, the mantra must be 'kids first'

Public school districts in Wyoming - and there are eight of those in Fremont County -- can't be thrilled with the Wyoming Legislature's decision to order $34.5 million in cuts to public school funding.

But there is a brighter side to it. The state came up with the overall dollar amount, but the local districts will get to handle the specifics.

The Legislature struggled to finish its work a week ago Friday, as the 40-day general session stretched hours longer than normal before an unusual nighttime adjournment. The lawmakers hammered and hammered on a supplemental education funding bill for weeks, trying to shape it into something they, the governor, local school districts and Wyoming residents could live with.

"Living with it" is not the same as "satisfied with it," however, and it's no exaggeration to say that nobody is satisfied with the final bill. As it stands now, the first step toward a solution to the enormous funding shortfall brought on by our state's depressed energy industry is to require the school districts to slash expenses on their own. No new revenue is forthcoming, at least not immediately.

Clearly, this was a grueling legislative process -- and it has resulted in a bill that doesn't really solve the problem. No consensus emerged, and the bill that was passed only addresses about 10 percent of the projected revenue shortfall for schools.

A "recalibration" of Wyoming school finance is expected later this year, which will set a new funding and distribution formula for our state's diverse school system. Fremont County's structure mirrors the state's in some ways, diverges from it in others. From the relatively large but relatively poor school districts in Riverton and Lander, to the small but still rather prosperous district in Shoshoni, to the rural district at Wind River, to the tiny, isolated district in Dubois, added to the three Wind River Indian Reservation districts, which are unique to Fremont County, school funding here is a puzzle when funds are plentiful -- and a fiscal minefield when money is scarce.

What districts have to do now is begin paring their shares of the $34.5 million in mandated reductions statewide. The state -- so far -- is saying only that funding must be reduced, not precisely how. Local control is what school districts say they want, and they are getting it in this instance.

That's good, because anyone looking for a standard formula won't find it. Each district has its own superintendent and administrators, its own student requirements, its own facilities requirements, its own travel requirements, its own faculty requirements, its own layers of administrative structure. Each has its own patrons and school boards, some of them relatively hands-off, others which immerse themselves in the granular details of school district decision-making.

If an overarching approach can be found, perhaps it's this: Keep boots on the ground. Focus on teachers and kids before everything else. Keep teachers in classrooms, with student-to-teacher ratios manageable. All other district functions ought to be squeezed, stretched and scraped first, so that the mission of every public school district -- educating children in a safe stimulating, productive environment -- is compromised as little as possible.

That looks good on newsprint, but if ever a policy had an "easier said than done" air about it, it's that one. Still, each district must try.

While some in Cheyenne hold out hope that the new presidential administration will work some magical effect on the state's energy economy so that more cuts -- or taxes -- won't be necessary, there isn't a lot of time for that to happen. Schools are still funded at current levels for one more year. Twelve months from now, this problem likely will be staring us in the face again. By then, there will be no more time to buy -- and the cutbacks schools face this year might well be small potatoes by comparison.

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