Education Budget Cuts

Students make their way to their buses in November at the Natrona County School District bus hub in central Casper. The school board has approved a policy for laying off teachers.

File, Star-Tribune

The Natrona County school board approved its layoff policy with little fanfare Monday night, codifying a measure that officials have said they hope to avoid using even as the state grapples with an education budget crunch.

The approved version of the policy was slightly different than the one first presented to board members in the spring. The final version included language letting staff know that if they were terminated, they could request a hearing with district officials.

That option of a meeting is statutorily required and would have been true under the initial version, officials have said, but it wasn’t spelled out in the policy itself. The change was intended to ease staff concerns.

The policy was approved unanimously. Board chairman Kevin Christopherson was not present at Monday’s meeting.

The exact details of the policy remain somewhat unclear, as they will be drafted by district staff now that the policy has been approved. What is known is that instructors who are laid off will be given notice by April 15 at the latest, which is typically when districts must finalize contracts. Any layoffs would be effective at the end of that current school year.

The initial version of the policy said that the layoffs will be approved by the board after a recommendation by the superintendent.

In July, the board approved a budget that was nearly $4 million tighter than it was the year before. But it avoided layoffs, and officials said they were confident that they’ll be able to move forward with a strategy that relies heavily on attrition and reassignment to cut costs.

Still, board member Dana Howie, who heads the subcommittee that drafted the policy, has said the board had to have a layoff policy for certified personnel.

The board has absorbed the cuts that have been levied against school districts in Wyoming as the state tries to solve a looming $530 million education deficit. But there remains the potential that the Legislature — which may decide to tweak or completely overhaul the state funding system when lawmakers reconvene in February — could cut more.

To that end, the board directed Superintendent Steve Hopkins and his staff to prepare for the worst, which would be an approximately 25 percent cut to the district, the general fund for which is $212 million this year.

District officials are preparing a mock budget that would reflect a 25 percent reduction, but there’s no indication — at least now — that such a sizable cut will come to pass.

Like most — if not all — districts in the state, the vast majority of Natrona County’s budget is tied up in salaries and benefits for employees. In February, when some legislators proposed cutting $91 million from schools statewide, board chairman Christopherson told the Star-Tribune that a cut of that magnitude would result in a “bloodbath” of layoffs here and across Wyoming.

District officials have maintained for months that they will do whatever they can to avoid layoffs and direct cuts to classrooms, and thus far, they’ve been successful. That sentiment is reflected in the approved policy, which states that the “primary strategy of the district is to use normal attrition of staff as the first means of achieving reduction in force. A second means to avoid layoffs is the reassignment of staff into vacancies based on licensure and credentials.”

Still, the policy acknowledges that if those strategies aren’t enough, then the district may have to institute layoffs.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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