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Wyoming’s revenue woes could force NCSD to shutter more schools, layoff hundreds

(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — What would a 16% reduction in state funding guaranteed to the Natrona County School District look like? How would it affect how schools operate? How many teachers would lose their jobs and how many more schools would be shuttered?

These are questions the NCSD Board of Trustees discussed during their Monday, Oct. 26 work session.

With the state anticipating significant revenue shortfalls that could impact K-12 education funding, the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration have sent a letter to school boards across the asking how a 16% reduction to their school foundation program funding would impact operations, according to NCSD Superintendent Mike Jennings.

Jennings said that the committee had identified a $515 million funding gap for K-12 education based on revenue projections as the state deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling energy sector.

In addition to asking school boards to consider what a 16% cut to their district’s school foundation program budget would look like, Jennings said the committee also asked school boards to consider whether they would support new taxes or other means to increase the state’s revenue.

The NCSD Board of Trustees discussed a draft letter intended to respiond to the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration’s inquiries.

“A sixteen percent (16%) reduction to NCSD’s block grant would be approximately $31.52 million and would have a significant impact on the ability of NCSD to provide students with an equitable and proper education,” the draft letter states. “A reduction of this magnitude would necessitate NCSD to reduce educational programs, increase class sizes, layoff personnel, extend the purchasing cycle of curriculum materials, eliminate course offerings, and much more.”

“A budget reduction of this magnitude would require NCSD to eliminate 331 full-time certified positions or 384 positions (combination of classified and certified staff).”

However, NCSD would be facing reductions beyond the 16% cut to their school finance program budget should the Wyoming Legislature move forward on such cuts.

NCSD is already anticipating revenue reductions in coming school years. Enrollment is down in the district and NCSD “currently has a decrease of 637 students in its average daily membership (ADM),” the draft letter states.

In addition to reductions that would stem from reduced enrollment, NCSD anticipates other reductions based on the state’s existing school finance models.

The 16% school foundation program cut along with other revenue reductions NCSD is anticipating would reduce their budget by a total of $45.26 million, the draft letter says.

“A budget reduction of this scale would require NCSD to eliminate 23% of its personnel and non-personnel budgets,” the draft letter adds. “Approximately 80% – 85% of our budget is personnel. The magnitude and the pace of the reductions can, and will, have a profound impact on the education services provided to the students of Natrona County.”

Jennings explained on Tuesday that the district eliminated about $10 million in 2015, the last time the state was faced with a significant shortfall in funding for K-12 education.

That resulted in the district closing five elementary schools and one middle school. NCSD also eliminated about 130 positions throughout the district and reduced department budgets by 15%.

The draft letter states that the district took these measures “proactively.”

“During the last downturn, NCSD was committed to reducing central office staff, departments, and programs before reducing instructional services to students,” the draft letter adds.

Should the district face budget cuts of the magnitude the trustees were asked to consider, the draft letter states that NCSD would consider all areas for “modification, reduction or elimination.”

“One example of an educational program that will come under review is NCSD’s certified tutoring model,” the draft letter states. “NCSD currently employs 57 certified tutors at a cost of $5.5 million.”

“Certified tutors provide instruction and interventions to the most at-risk students within the district for literacy and mathematical skill deficits. Based on the NCSD screening process, there are approximately 3,400 students that have been identified as tier 3 (highest level of need) and receive small group and individual tutoring services. This is in addition to the students that are being served within tier 2.”

Reducing or eliminating tutors would negatively impact equitable education opportunities for at-risk students, according to the draft letter.

“The loss of tutoring services would negatively impact individual students’ success, graduation rates, school accountability performance, and workforce readiness,” the draft continues.

The trustees indicated support for most aspects of the draft letter during their work session on Tuesday. However, some took issue with language in a few places.

Trustee Dave Applegate said that he thought the letter should avoid taking a political stance on possible reductions and stick to describing how NCSD would respond.

Applegate specifically questioned the inclusion of this paragraph in the draft letter:

It appears evident the problem cannot be solved with a focus solely on revenue reductions and cuts to school districts. Any large cut, implemented quickly, will force elimination of educational programs, courses, and will result in layoffs and reductions-in-force (RIF) which tends to focus on younger and newly hired employees.

NCSD Board of Trustees draft letter

While he said he didn’t necessarily disagree with the position, Applegate said he thought it best to leave it to the legislature to determine a course of action and that the trustees should focus on communicating ways the district could respond.

Applegate said he’d like to see a paragraph added noting that the cuts could potentially impact class sizes or shutter schools.

Trustee Kevin Christopherson said he’d like to see the letter communicate to the legislature that school districts need clarity about what to anticpate.

“The uncertainty is terrible to deal with,” he said. “They need to find some way to give us an idea of what’s coming.”

While a 16% reduction made all at once “would be devastating, Christopherson said he thought it may be possible to manage if the reduction was implemented over the course of 3-4 years.

Trustee Debbie McCullar said that she thought the letter should communicate that the state could save “millions and millions” of dollars if they would get rid of some standardized testing requirements.

McCullar said the state could still require some type of testing of students, doing away with some current requirements would be an easy place to save money.

Trustee Ray Catellier said that he liked the letter as drafted. While he agreed with other trustees that they could communicate recommendations on how budget reductions could be made, he noted that the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration would be meeting on Wednesday.

He said he thought the trustees could add a paragraph toward the end of the letter indicating that they would communicate further recommendations in a second letter in order to keep the first letter relatively short and get it sent ahead of the meeting Wednesday.

“I do think we want to get the letter out as soon as possible,” Board Chair Rita Walsh said. “I like what Ray said, personally. Maybe by Wednesday, we’ll have more information [to help inform a second letter].”

The trustees agreed to ask Jennings to work with Walsh to finalize a letter, incorporating some of the input they provided during the work session.