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After another year of cuts, Natrona County School District readies new budget

Back in July, the Natrona County school board approved a budget that was $4 million lighter than the previous one. It was the product of 10 months of work that included closing a school.

At the end of the meeting, as the board breathed sighs of relief, trustee Debbie McCullar said that come August, the cycle of budget-making would restart.

“We only have two months before we start again,” she said then.

On Monday, the board inched closer to finishing the cycle again. For the second straight year, district officials are prepared to cut $4 million for next year. In budget documents, they project expenditures to drop from $195.1 million this year to $191.4 million. That process will again rely in part on shuttering buildings — four this time.

It will also ask the district’s schools — who receive their budgets and are tasked to use them as they see fit — to cut those budgets by 5 percent, after a similar 5 percent cut last year. The district’s two divisions — human resources, and curriculum and instruction — were cut by nearly 19 percent last year; no more reductions “are recommended for” next year, according to budget documents.

The budget documents showed the board has about $5.14 million in leftover money from last year, “larger than in years past due to budget savings.” The board is set to increase its reserves by $500,000 next year, taking its piggy bank to more than $10.82 million.

The documents also show the district expects average daily membership — a calculation of enrollment that determines funding — will continue to drop for the next three years. Officials estimate it to fall by roughly 90 students each year.

Overall enrollment has fallen throughout the state in the wake of the recent energy bust. It’s been especially significant in coal country, but Natrona County has not been immune. At the start of this academic year, officials said there were 350 fewer elementary students than there were in 2014. Those departures — and the money that went with them — played a role in the closure of the four schools. Two — Mountain View and Frontier — were well-below capacity, while University Park and Willard elementaries were nearly full but were small; their students could be fit into larger buildings that had empty classrooms.

Officials have said in the past there are no current plans to close more schools, and some board members have said privately that they won’t be taking that step again.

Throughout the recent budget-cutting process, the board has said it aims to avoid layoffs. Instead, it’s eliminated 108 positions — including more than 14.5 percent of its district-level staff — over the past three years through attrition and reassignment. Another 238 employees — more than 10 percent of the district’s 2,000-plus workforce — have said they will leave over the next three years.

The district will not eliminate all of those positions. But the budget documents demonstrate the extent to which the district has relied on cutting jobs to save money. The district’s projected salary spending for next year is $5.3 million less than in 2016.

The district is also preparing for a post-construction period. In the years leading up to the energy bust, the district’s elementary enrollment grew at a steady clip. Officials have said they were told to build new elementary schools to keep up with the growth. The district also began massive remodeling projects at Kelly Walsh and Natrona County high schools, and construction began on the combined Pathways Innovation Center and Roosevelt High School campus.

Then the bust came, enrollment dropped, and the money typically used to fund construction — separate from the money used to fund school operations — completely evaporated. Next year, the district is projecting that it will spend less than $2.4 million on construction, compared to a peak of $96.4 million in the 2014-15 school year.

In all, the district’s construction budgets between 2010 and 2018 was $356.8 million. As part of the district’s — and state’s — new post-construction world, Natrona County will focus more on maintenance of older buildings. The district is projecting it will have $8.7 million for major maintenance next year.

The district’s fiscal year ends June 30. The board will approve its new budget in July and will likely complete its draft before the end of the fiscal year.

States sue over emissions standards

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California and 16 other states sued the Trump administration Tuesday over its plan to scrap Obama-era auto-emissions standards that would require vehicles to get significantly higher gas mileage by 2025.

At issue is a move by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt to roll back 2012 rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Under those rules, vehicles would have to get 36 miles of real-world driving per gallon, about 10 miles over the existing standard.

"Pollutants coming out of vehicles, out of the tailpipe, does permanent lung damage to children living near well-traveled roads and freeways. This is a fact. The only way we're going to overcome that is by reducing emissions," Gov. Jerry Brown said in announcing the lawsuit along with other top California Democrats.

The rules were set six years ago when California and the Obama administration agreed to a single nationwide fuel economy standard.

Pruitt, who has sought to block or delay an array of environmental regulations, has argued that assumptions about gas prices and vehicle technology used by the Obama administration to set the standards were too optimistic. And he said the standards would hurt automakers and consumers who can't afford or don't want to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Automakers have likewise argued that the Obama-era rules would cost the industry billions of dollars and raise vehicle prices because of the cost of developing the necessary technology.

EPA representatives did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

California officials say the standards are achievable and the EPA's effort to repeal them is not based on any new research. They argue the plan violates the federal Clean Air Act and didn't follow the agency's own regulations.

California has a unique waiver that allows it to set its own tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, which it has used to combat smog and, more recently, global warming. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the California standards as their own.

California has now sued the Trump administration more than 30 times on topics including immigration and health care policy.

"The world is not flat, pollution is not free, and the health and safety of our children is not for sale," said Democratic state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, standing alongside the governor.

Brown, who has made fighting climate change a core of his policy and political platform, said the state's battles with Washington over climate are the most essential.

"If we follow the Pruitt-Trump path, we follow our way off the cliff to disaster," he said.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Joining California were Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia. All have Democratic attorneys general.

EPA launches program to work with Wyoming mining industry

Wyoming’s coal industry is being offered a seat at the table with regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency as part of a new initiative to collaborate with sectors that power Western economies, the agency’s regional office announced Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and the Dakotas. The Smart Sector Program will be a vehicle for data analysis, roundtables between industry and regulators and reports that show the impact of sectors such as agriculture and mining on the environment and the economy.

In Wyoming, the chosen sector to work with the EPA on this program is mining, an industry that has been at odds with the federal agency for years over an Obama-era measure to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. For many in Wyoming, the Clean Power Plan was crafted as part of a political “war on coal.” Repealing the plan was a key selling point in President Donald Trump’s campaign, and last year the Environmental Protection Agency began the work of revising or unravelling the regulation.

The new program to work with industries like coal is in line with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s business-friendly direction since taking over the agency. In a March interview with the Star-Tribune at the Black Thunder coal mine near Wright, Pruitt said industry needs and practices should guide policies from the Environmental Protection Agency, not the other way around.

“When industries and regulators better understand each other, the economy, public, and the environment all benefit,” Pruitt said Tuesday in a statement on the new initiative.

According to the EPA, collaborating with industries that are key to local economies can generate “sensible policies to improve environmental protection.”

Wyoming’s day-to-day relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency is largely related to topics such as clean drinking water or injection wells used by the oil and gas industry to dispose of wastewater. The agency has occasionally become deeply embedded in local issues in Wyoming, as when it stepped in to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing and wastewater management in Pavillion, with controversial results.

The agency also administers a number of grants to state regulatory agencies for environmental programs. It provides loans and grants for individual projects, such as a $300,000 grant approved on April 26 for Douglas to study the environmental risks of abandoned gas stations, a railyard and a historic oil depot in its downtown area.

The new initiative begins this summer with a number of forums. On the regulatory side, the EPA will work to explain its policy and practices “in simple terms,” according to an agency press release. For industries like mining, the forums offer a place to promote their way of doing things and their successes in environmental efforts.

“By working together and building a strong relationship between the Agency and the regulated community, we can make positive improvements toward maintaining a strong industry while achieving environmental goals,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, in a statement Tuesday.

Foster Friess: I wasn’t referring to Obama with ‘Zoowanatou’ comment

Wyoming governor candidate and GOP megadonor Foster Friess clarified remarks he made during an April speech in which he appeared to suggest President Barack Obama had sent funds to family members in the country of “Zoowanatou.”

Friess said he was referring to Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, and that he meant to say that the president of Vanuatu had misappropriated funds sent to the country.

“I was referring to the president of vanuata,,,NOT president Obama,” Friess said in an email to the Star-Tribune. “It is a good lesson for me to be VERY specific so listener is not confused about which president I am talking about.”

Vanuatu is pronounced “vah-noo-ah-too,” according to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

Convention speech

Friess delivered the original comments during a luncheon he was sponsoring at the Wyoming Republican Party convention in Laramie two weeks ago. He was discussing money appropriated for mitigating climate change during the Obama administration and focused specifically on the case of a country that Friess said he had never been to and could not properly pronounce.

“President Obama put a billion dollars in the green fund,” Friess said. “Where did that money go? ... Zoowanatou? Help me pronounce it ... It probably ended up with the president’s cousins.”

Friess said in the email Monday that he remained concerned about the funds allegedly sent to Vanuatu during the Obama administration.

“(I)t is hard to spend $26.2 million on ‘really good data’ in a little country like that,” Friess said. “(S)ure wish some journalist had the guts to go over and actually who got the contracts and what their relationship was with the president of the country.”

It is unclear exactly what funds, if any, were sent to Vanuatu as part of climate change initiatives during Obama’s presidency.

Vanuatu vocal on climate change

The country, which has a population of about 282,000 spread across a cluster of islands, has been something of a poster child for the impact of climate change.

Then-president Baldwin Lonsdale said in 2015 that climate change ‘contributed’ to a devastating cyclone that struck the island that year. Lonsdale has since died.

The nation’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations also has a web page discussing climate change and advocating for global action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

“For Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Vanuatu, climate change remains in fact the most significant single threat to sustainable development,” the web page states. It cites “sea-level rise, coastal erosion and ocean acidification” as some of the negative effects of warming temperatures.

The Vanuatu’s United Nations Mission did not immediately respond to a request comment Tuesday regarding whether the nation had received any money from the United States to be spent on climate change projects and, if so, how that money had been spent.

According to the State Department, the United States is “a major financial contributor to international and regional organizations that assist Vanuatu.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development has supported efforts to help the nation “adapt to the negative impacts of global climate change,” the State Department said on its website. USAID contributed $2.2 million to help Vanuatu and 11 other island nations recover from the 2015 cyclone.

According to the department, the United States exports about $8 million worth of goods to Vanuatu annually and imports $5.6 million worth.

Controversial comments

Friess’s initial comments caught the attention of some liberal pundits, including Late Show host Stephen Colbert, who highlighted the Star-Tribune’s coverage of the Zoowanatou quote during a show last week.

Friess said he had also received some criticism during a campaign event Monday, but was able to clarify what he meant with some assistance from the iPhone’s voice assistant application.

“I got hammered tonight while campaigning for my remarks but was able to get the guy squared away,” Friess wrote in the email. “(H)e started out that the country Vanuata doesn’t exist……thank the Lord for Siri.”