School Closures

Superintendent Steve Hopkins and Natrona County school board members Rita Walsh, left, and Dana Howie listen to comments from the public earlier this month at Bar Nunn Elementary. School officials warned if the state solves its budget crisis through cuts alone, it could have “dramatic” repercussions.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

If the state of Wyoming were to solve its current education funding crisis solely through cuts, it could have devastating effects on Natrona County, school officials said this week.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” said Superintendent Steve Hopkins. “Not pretty.”

If the statewide shortfall for school operations is at least $350 million a year — as the worst-case projections have suggested in the past — and lawmakers slash the entire amount from schools, then the Natrona County School District could lose $48.5 million in funding, or about a quarter of its budget. In that case, there’s little chance the district could absorb the blow without layoffs.

To prepare for that worst-case scenario, the board directed Hopkins and district staff in July to look at how Natrona County would shoulder its share of such a drastic reduction.

On Monday, Hopkins and Ryan Kelly, the director of business services in the district, presented those findings:

  • The district could lay off 185 employees, or 10 percent of its workforce, to save $16.1 million;
  • it could double that, handing pink slips to 370 employees and save $32.3 million;
  • it could cut salaries and benefits by 10 percent, saving $17.4 million, or 20 percent, saving $34.9 million;
  • nonpersonnel budgets could be reduced more than they already have been; a 10 percent cut would save $4.5 million, and a 20 percent reduction would save $9.1 million.

The district could also work from a new “zero-based budget,” meaning officials would start from zero and build a new budget, justifying every dollar, every year, with the goal of a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction, which would save $19.4 million and $38.8 million, respectively.

District officials not signaling an intent to act on these strategies. The board has already absorbed the cuts it needs to make for now, and trustees have said their No. 1 priority in dealing with the funding crisis is avoiding layoffs. Thus far, they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, hours after Hopkins and Kelly presented the doomsday scenario, the board voted to close four schools, with some suggesting that if the district did not close them, the board would have no choice but to cut staff.

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the doomsday scenario could come to pass even in the district’s worst nightmares. Hopkins operated under the assumption that the state faces at least a $350 million annual education funding shortfall in the coming two-year budget cycle.

But House Speaker Steve Harshman said two weeks ago that the operations deficit was down to $240 million annually, and legislative staffers told lawmakers at summer meetings that it was around $265 million.

Matt Willmarth, a school finance expert with the Legislative Service Office, said Wednesday that operations faced a $430 million deficit in the coming two-year budget cycle, while construction — which is separate from day-to-day funding — was down roughly $200 million.

Those numbers are likely to change in light of recent revenue projections, though Willmarth said he was still working on calculating any new figures.

Still, the emergency strategies demonstrate how serious the situation could become, especially now that the “low-bearing fruit,” as chairman Kevin Christopherson has called past reductions, has already been cut. In July, the school board approved a budget that slashed more than $4 million. It will have to reduce at least that much in each of the next two years.

As of now, that’s the district’s piece of the crisis. But, district officials have repeatedly cautioned, that could change. Lawmakers are in the process of examining the state’s education system, a process called recalibration that focuses heavily on how schools are funded. What comes out of that process could determine if more cuts are coming.

On top of that, the full Legislature could roll out more reductions when it convenes in February. Hopkins told board members and district officials Monday that there has been no talk — at least that he’s heard — of ending cuts. It’s more a question of how much more to levy.

Over the past two years, Wyoming schools have lost about $57 million in direct reductions. Some legislators — including Harshman — have suggested a five-pronged approach to solving the crisis, which would involve schools accepting cuts of around $80 million in total. That would mean at least $23 million more in cuts. But other lawmakers have called for more: Hopkins said he had heard at least $100 million.

Ultimately, he told board members, the district is likely to have to cut more than less. That fact has not been lost on the trustees.

“Next year’s even going to be harder than this year,” said Kevin Christopherson, the board chairman.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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