The state’s education consultant presented information Thursday about consolidating some of Wyoming’s 48 school districts, a cost-cutting measure that most lawmakers expressed little interest in.
“I’m opposed to consolidation,” Sen. Hank Coe, the chairman of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, told the audience of educators on Thursday morning. A Republican from Cody, Coe comes from a county with three school districts. “We’re only receiving this report on consolidation — just receiving it — because we’re turning over all the stones.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican who also comes from a county with three school districts, lamented that lawmakers had wasted a large chunk of their day on a solution that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t solve much.
“We have a half-billion dollar problem,” he said, referring to the state’s overall education funding deficit. “We’ve now spent 20 percent of our time on an $8 million solution. You see the angst and anxiety people have about consolidation.”
Consolidating the state’s school districts has been a frequent topic of discussion by some lawmakers as they work to bridge a gaping education funding deficit. On paper, there appears to be good reason for looking into it: Of the state’s 23 districts, only eight have one school district. Forty-two of the 48 districts have less than 3,000 students. Lawmakers directed the state’s education consultants — Augenblick, Palaich and Associates — to conduct a study of possible consolidations in the state, and on Thursday, the experts presented their findings.
“Potential savings are possible through reduction of one-of-a-kind positions such as superintendents, business managers, curriculum directors, federal program directors, and others,” the consultants wrote.
Essentially, the state could save money by having one superintendent in a county like Sheridan, instead of three. Fremont County has eight districts; could one business manager serve them all? In the past, when the topic has come up, it’s generally presented that way: as administration consolidation. Lawmakers have said they don’t want to close buildings and deprive small towns of their schools.
Even though it seemed like lawmakers were merely doing their due diligence by looking at consolidation (though Rep. Cathy Connolly expressed some interest in it), educators still stood to testify against it.
“When you start to think about what are the real cost savings when you talk about consolidation, it isn’t superintendents’ salaries,” Marty Kobza, the superintendent of Sheridan County. No. 1, testified. “Politically, it’s popular, I understand, but at the same time, the only way you save real dollars — and Natrona County can probably attest to this — is you close buildings.”
Natrona County School District voted to close four schools in October. Officials here said it would save more than $2 million a year. Superintendent Steve Hopkins, in comparison, makes roughly $190,000 annually.
Unsurprising, a survey of superintendents and business managers showed none currently shared those duties with another district, and 80 percent of each said they would not do so.
They were open to sharing some responsibilities: Seventy-two percent said they would share a fundraising administrator, 77 percent said they’d do the same with a grant manager, and 72 percent said they’d share a public relations position, among a number of other roles.
On top of sharing administrative duties, there are some benefits to sharing, if not outright consolidating. For instance, Natrona County has a number of specialized teachers — like those that teach art or advanced placement classes — that students in one of the Converse County districts may not have access to.
If there’s to be any consolidation, that sharing of services would likely be the conduit. The consultants recommended sharing foreign language teachers, for instance, or combining payroll services. Indeed, the survey showed that a majority of districts would share several kinds of teachers, from foreign language to computer programming to special education.
Kinskey asked the consultants what was in it for a district like Natrona — which has nearly 13,000 students, more than 2,000 employees and is the only district in the county — to consolidate with others. Would it just be out of the goodness of their heart?
The consultant replied that larger districts would “welcome the opportunity to provide these instructional opportunities for all of the students in their region.”
Essentially, the consultant said, it would be out of the goodness of their heart.