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.