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School supplies

Mitchell Fare, 9, packs a backpack full of school supplies during a 2017 Stuff the Bus event at the Natrona County School District Central Services building. The district has proposed paying for all student school supplies. 

A proposal to pay for all Natrona County students’ school supplies starting in the fall drew some criticism from the local teachers association Monday night, though the group’s president said he still wanted the plan to go ahead.

“We want this to be something that’s successful and something that’s ongoing,” Dirk Andrews, president of the Natrona County Education Association, told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday. “We just have some concerns about unintended consequences.”

Andrews expressed those concerns to the school board Monday night. Later this month, the board will meet to approve its budget, which includes several hundred thousand dollars set aside to pay for school supplies for each of the roughly 13,000 kids in the Natrona County School District. That plan also calls for the elimination of all student, classroom and athletic attendance fees. To make up for it, the district plans to give each school $45 per student, plus $75,000 to both Kelly Walsh and Natrona County High to make up for the loss of the eliminated fees.

The board has said the proposal is in keeping with its efforts to educate all of its students equally, regardless of socio-economic status. Andrews praised that goal and broadly praised the effort. But he said that the teachers who make up his association have expressed some questions about the plan.

For one, he said there’s concern that, should there be budget cuts, that the school supply and student fee funding may be gutted. That’s not an unreasonable concern: In recent years, the school board here has announced plans to cut roughly $12 million as a result of state cuts and falling enrollment. The board closed five schools to help absorb those reductions.

But there have been positive signs recently. While there is still a state education deficit, it’s significantly less than in years past. District leaders have said the new student fee funding plan was in part driven by recent legislation that actually added funding to districts. The possibility of another such legislative boost is being studied this year.

In his remarks to the board Monday night — which he shared with the Star-Tribune — Andrews asked the board to study the rollout of the new student fee and school supply funding over the 2019-20 school year, to ensure that schools are getting as much money as they need. Other concerns raised by teachers and relayed by Andrews included concerns that centralizing the spending to the schools — rather than on a family-by-family basis — may hurt the local economy, as individual schools buy in bulk from out-of-state suppliers.

Similarly, he said some teachers had raised concern that some of the supplies the individual schools would purchase may not be as high quality as they have been. Andrews said a teacher told the board on Monday that the woodworking projects students do may be of lesser quality if the district buys cheaper materials in bulk, rather than the individual students buying the supplies on their own.

Andrews stressed again that he broadly supported the plan. But he said he didn’t know for sure that the board was considering the school supply proposal until they unveiled it publicly earlier this spring. As a result, he hadn’t talked with teachers about it yet. As he’s having those conversations now, he said, he’s bringing those concerns to the board.

The trustees will meet again in two weeks to discuss the budget and will vote on it — and the proposed changes to the school supplies and student fees — in early July.

In a statement to the Star-Tribune, district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said the board was “confident” in the plan to give individual schools the option to pay for their own supplies.

In Wyoming, school districts are given their funding in a block grant, with wide latitude to use the money as appropriate. Natrona County has adopted a similar, “decentralized” budget system that distributes money to individual schools. Each facility has its own fiscal committee that then spends and distributes the funding as that budget team sees fit.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

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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