The Natrona County School District has no current plan to close its rural schools despite rumors to the contrary, an official said Monday. The move is, however, one of several options the district has examined broadly should state cuts become much more significant than they are now.
For months, the district’s administration has been working on preparing for the worst-case scenario. After it approved a trimmed-down budget in July, the school board wanted to know: Should the state cut $350 million or more from Wyoming’s schools — which find themselves in a significant funding shortfall — how would Natrona County shoulder its share of the cut?
A reduction of that size would be a roughly $48.5 million blow, which would constitute about 25 percent of the district’s funds.
That’s where the rural school closure discussion comes into play. Michael Jennings, the executive director of human services at the district, explained that the planning has included looking at how much could be saved by closing those schools; by cutting the district’s staff by 10 percent or 20 percent; slashing salaries and benefits; instituting pay-for-play policies for some activities; and dropping to a four-day school week.
The rural schools identified by officials are Alcova Elementary, Midwest School, Poison Spider, Red Creek Elementary and Powder River Elementary.
To be clear, the district has no recommendation to close those schools. No board or administrator committee is considering it beyond an exercise in broad preparation. There are no meetings scheduled to discuss it. The committee that recommended the closure of Frontier Middle and Mountain View, Willard and University Park elementary schools has not presented any new proposals to the board, Jennings said.
Indeed, even if the district were to face a $48.5 million cut, it’s not certain what strategy officials would pursue to make up the money. The closing of the rural schools is one potential strategy the district is examining now should more drastic measures become necessary.
“There was not one option endorsed, not one option where they said, ‘Hey, go do this one,’” Jennings said of the board’s response to the potential cuts.
Still, there’s anxiety in the community about school closures. Rumors about the shuttering of the rural schools exploded on Facebook over the weekend. That concern came less than two weeks after the school board voted to close three elementary schools and a middle school.
That decision, in turn, came less than five months after Grant Elementary closed, felled by similar financial constraints.
After the most recent closings — which officials have said will save the district more than $2 million a year — several board members have expressed strong opposition to closing any more schools.
Jennings said those closures were influenced by the district’s significant excess capacity. At the start of this school year, there were nearly a thousand empty elementary seats. That has largely been addressed, he said, so for now, there’s not a need to close schools because of too many empty spots.
“We believe that with this recent round of closures, that (the district) is right-sized,” he said.
But, he stressed, there were factors outside of Natrona County’s control. Right now, the district is working to absorb the $12 million it lost in recent years as a result of state cuts and falling enrollment. The board has already cut about $4 million and will have to cut at least that much in each of the next two years.
That’s the number for now. But, officials have said, there’s a chance that number could grow: The Legislature is currently in the process of examining its education system, a task known as recalibration that could result in changes to the amount of state funding each district receives.
Even if that broad examination doesn’t decrease funding levels, there’s the chance that the Legislature as a whole could institute other cuts — as they’ve done in the past two legislative sessions.
Late last month, Superintendent Steve Hopkins and other officials presented to the school board several strategies that could be deployed should that cut become a reality. They told the board that closing the rural schools could provide the district a savings of $5.8 million a year.
“Not one of those is being advanced right now because we’re continuing down the path of our $12 million reduction,” Jennings said. “However — and I’ll put that big ol’ ‘however’ stamp on it — depending on what comes out of recalibration and the Legislature, depending on what that looks like, we may be going to work on that $12 million target ... all the way up to where we have to take a full $48.5 million out of our budget.”
“Are we out of the woods?” he continued. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. So we have the path for the 12 (million dollar cut), but what happens if we get the 25 percent reduction? These are some of the options that we’d have to give to the board.”