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Glenrock school district considers cost-cutting measures as it prepares for more cuts

Glenrock’s school district plans to institute layoffs and is considering a four-day week and renting out building space as it attempts to grapple with a deficit that’s already taken $850,000 from its budget.

Converse County School District No. 2 has so far been able to blunt some of the impact, partially by eliminating an administrative position and using donated beef to cut food service costs. With more reductions looming, it’s crowdsourcing solutions to the deficit.

But even with the proposed strategies, the district will still shed jobs, said Superintendent Coley Shadrick. He was unable to predict the number of employees who would receive pink slips, given that a number of factors — like the severity of the cuts — remain unclear.

“Even in the best case scenario, we will be forced to reduce staff,” he said Thursday.

That best scenario is a $500,000 cut, which represents a nearly 5 percent reduction. Last year, the district cut $850,000 out of its then-$11.5 million budget.

The worst-case scenario is a cut of $1 million, nearly 10 percent of the remaining budget. According to a recent Wyoming Department of Education report, the school district serves 572 students.

The district — along with the 47 others across the state — is waiting for the results of recalibration, the process through which a group of lawmakers and consultants study the state’s education system from top to bottom.

The review could mean a cheaper funding model. It could also mean a more expensive one, an unappealing possibility for some lawmakers who hoped the process would help cut costs.

Another factor is the legislative session. Lawmakers on the Joint Education Committee have already sponsored a bill that would cut more than $16 million from schools. Many lawmakers and educators have wondered if legislators will institute a cut that would roll out even larger reductions. Superintendent Steve Hopkins, of the Natrona County School District, has said he has only heard talk of more reductions, not less.

To consider options to deal with the looming cuts, the Glenrock school district brought in members of the public to form a cost-saving task force, which has met twice so far. The community as a whole has suggested roughly 450 ideas. Similar Google documents have been created in other districts to crowdsource cost-saving measures.

Among the options the district is seriously considering is trimming the school week to four days, an increasingly popular measure statewide that is also in place at Natrona County’s Midwest School.

Shadrick said cutting the school week would save about $35,000 a year on substitute teachers being brought in on Fridays. The district’s four schools could also be used for community events, which could bring in more money.

Still, other districts have warned that having students in school from Monday to Thursday is not a big driver of savings. That’s because much of a district’s budget is tied up in personnel costs, which a shortened week alone would not address for permanent staff. Some of the districts that have implemented four-day weeks have done so to cut down on the absences of students participating in activities.

Going to a four-day week also presents the problem of what parents who work would do with their kids on Fridays. The district is currently working with the Boys and Girls Club to address that problem, Shadrick said.

Converse 2’s budget is 85 percent personnel costs. With more cuts almost certain, the district won’t be able to avoid layoffs this time around, Shadrick said.

“We had made $850,000 worth of cuts last year,” he said. “Kind of trimmed the fat. ... To take it to the next level is really going to be a challenge for us.”

Another option the district and its cost-saving task force is considering is moving some students to other schools, such as transferring seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school. The move would open up space to bring in community events and groups, who would pay the district to utilize the space.

Elsewhere, the district received donated beef, which helped it cut down on food service costs.

Unlike Natrona County, the district in Converse County is not considering closing schools, Shadrick said.

“Our school system is definitely the heart of our community,” he said.

There’s no single solution to solve Converse 2’s budget situation. Shadrick said the effort would chip away at the deficit and would ultimately add up to what is needed. It will also help stave off the impact elsewhere. For instance while the four-day week may save only $35,000, that’s more than three quarters of a teacher’s salary.

“If I can save one teacher, it’s worth it,” Shadrick said.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

A pair of horses graze Thursday afternoon against the backdrop of the Casper Sinclair Refinery in Evansville. On the heels of a cold snap that brought lows in the negative digits, warmer days are in the forecast for most of the coming week. 

Cole Creek fire claimants, lawyers meet for first time in proceedings that will determine city liability

A Natrona County judge will try to bring some clarity to a complicated court case related to restitution for damage caused by the Cole Creek Fire by sending out two letters informing affected homeowners of their rights.

The letter is part of a request for an interpleader action brought by the City of Casper. The legal action asks that a judge determine whether the city is liable for the destruction caused by the 2015 fire, which ignited in the municipal landfill and destroyed homes, outbuildings and killed livestock in rural Natrona County.

If Judge Catherine Wilking rules that Casper is liable, the city’s insurance money will be held by the court for distribution to people impacted by the blaze. Wilking would also be responsible for determining how to reimburse claimants.

The judge said Thursday that she had nearly two pages filled with the names of affected citizens who likely have no legal representation during the case. As a result, she will send a letter that explains how those people can remove themselves from the legal action if they do not want to be involved. It will also inform them of the legal consequences of taking such action, which could mean an inability to receive any restitution from the city at all.

The judge will also send out another letter telling potential claimants how to file a written notice of a financial claim in the case.

A number of people have already asked to be removed from the action, which the city’s attorney in the matter, Jay Gilbertz, chalked up to a limited amount of money available under the state’s Governmental Claims Act. The law caps total payments at $500,000.

Claims are believed to far exceed a half-million dollars, the city’s former attorney for the matter, Craig Silva, said in September.

It is up to Wilking to determine who is liable for the fire, the result of which could impact whether the city receives federal money as reimbursement for what it spent battling the blaze.

A total of 61 property owners filed claims with the city of Casper’s insurance agency in relation to the fire. The deadline to file such claims was Oct. 11.

A number of the defendants named in the interpleader have also filed counterclaims that could require the city to pay out money beyond any insurance payments.

The fire began after smoldering debris from a grinder at the municipal landfill ignited a woodchip pile, a state report concluded.

Landfill workers tried twice to extinguish the smoldering debris from the grinder, according to the report, which was produced by the Wyoming Department of Fire Prevention and Electrical Safety. The debris was pushed back into the woodchip pile once employees believed it was no longer burning.

However, the debris was still smoldering and ignited wood in the brush pile. Firefighters responded and kept watch overnight but lost control of the fire the following afternoon in high winds.

The fire burned almost 10,000 acres of land, destroyed 14 homes and killed livestock and pets before it was put out. Nearly 1,000 people were temporarily displaced by the five-day blaze.

The report examined the fire’s origins, but did not consider whether negligence played a role in its ignition. That question will be left to the courts.

“Obviously, there is a little bit of negligence there,” Eric Siwik, a fire investigator for the state’s Fire Prevention Department, told the Star-Tribune at the time. “It’s just, how much and could it have been avoided.”

Sessions terminates US policy that let legal pot flourish (copy)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.

Sessions’ action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions’ fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared “to take all steps necessary” to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement “disruptive” and “regrettable.”

Colorado’s U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won’t change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions’ guidance.

Prosecutors there always have focused on marijuana crimes that “create the greatest safety threats” and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.

The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.

While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.

Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.

It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.

Officials wouldn’t say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.

They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday’s action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.

Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump’s top priority is enforcing federal law “and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration.”

The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.

But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a “safe harbor” for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance “unnecessary.”

He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.

Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions’ move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.


Debate over Casper's sale of Ash Street buildings continues

While city leaders approved selling two-city owned buildings to local entrepreneurs last month, some community members are still questioning whether city staff properly conducted the bidding process.

“There are some questions that need to be answered,” said Lynette Boatright, a co-owner of downtown liquor retailer Urban Bottle.

Boatright said she’s concerned because the Casper City Council initially appeared to be unaware that city staff had put the buildings up for sale.

“If the city is going to be involved in real estate… I think they better get the [bidding process] straightened out before there is another debacle like this one,” she said.

The buildings, which are located on Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio and the Milo’s Toyota body shop. The sale became a contentious issue after a conference center consortium urged the Council to hold onto the properties and consider using the location to develop a hotel and conference center.

Although city employees were instructed to have the buildings appraised, the Council never told staff to put them out for bid, former mayor Kenyne Humphrey told the Star-Tribune last month.

By the time the Council realized the buildings were for sale, she said they opted not to halt the process because they felt it would be unfair to those who had already placed bids.

“I think that there was some confusion on staff’s part on whether or not we even wanted to go out for bid on those properties,” said Humphrey.

But releasing a request for proposals after having buildings appraised is the standard process, according to Community Development Director Liz Becher. Explaining that Council members have never complained about this protocol, the director said Thursday that she’s unsure why it’s suddenly a problem.

Given that the approved 2017-2018 budget factored in revenue the city expected to collect from the sale of the buildings, Becher said she believes it’s obvious the Council intended for the structures to be sold.

City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday he is continuing to look into the matter but has not yet found any indication that staff acted improperly when they released the request for proposals on Sept. 6.

While he agrees that city employees did follow the typical process, Mayor Ray Pacheco said he thinks the protocol needs to change.

“There seemed to have been a breakdown in communication somewhere ... Council needs to be a part of that process every step of the way,” he explained.

City staff plans on working with the Council to develop a new procedure for handling bids, said Becher.

Concerns that the buildings were placed for sale without the Council’s knowledge were initially brought up by Downtown Development Authority chairman Brandon Daigle at the public hearing about the Ash Street buildings on Dec. 19. The development authority is part of the consortium of organizations hoping to build a conference center downtown.

“I think there would have been an opportunity for bigger and creative projects to have been proposed [if the process had slowed down],” he said Thursday.