The Natrona County school board is set to approve its 2019-20 budget next week as it prepares for a rare increase in enrollment and an even rarer boost in funding.
The projected enrollment for next year — 13,082 students — is about 50 students below what district officials previously speculated but is still a boost from where the district started this past academic year. Indeed, if it holds, it would be the highest enrollment tally in several years, a positive sign for a district that was losing funding and students at a worrying pace just 12 months ago.
A particular issue at the district has been a decline in elementary students. That recent drop, coupled with state budget cuts, resulted in the decision to shutter four local elementary schools in June 2017 and 2018. The projections for next year show the elementary decline is still an issue but to a lesser degree: In the 18 K-5 elementary schools in Natrona County, the district is projecting 5,791 students for next year. That’s down just nine students across the K-5 schools from last year. For context, the district lost hundreds of its youngest students between 2014 and 2017.
(Those numbers don’t include Midwest, Poison Spider and Woods schools, all of which have students beyond fifth grade.)
The enrollment projection isn’t the only piece of good news within the school board’s 2019-20 draft budget. The document shows that the district’s state guaranteed funding is expected to be cut by about $2.5 million, to $187.7 million. But a decision by the Legislature earlier this year to provide a cost-of-living adjustment offset that decrease. With another legislative change, the district will actually have $513,153 more heading into fall 2019 than it did the year before.
That slight uptick in funding — still a significant decrease from where the district was a few years ago, before the bust and before state cuts — will likely help the board afford its plan to pay for school supplies for every student next year. That proposal will be voted on when the board fully accepts the budget July 10.
In all, the budget calls for a total appropriation of $293.4 million. More than $218 million is general fund. Teaching costs account for much of the general fund — about $132 million — while various support services, like counseling, physical therapy, administration and transportation, make up the rest.
The district is budgeting to spend the most on elementary education (about $46.7 million), followed by high school spending ($26 million) and then special education costs ($25 million), which cost more than junior high teaching. Other notable budget items are school administration (about $12.3 million), building services ($16.6 million) and transportation costs ($9.1 million).
It was an interesting financial year for the school district. The Legislature refrained from making the sort of seismic cuts that it has in the past — and at one point pondered this year. The district also found itself with some extra money, thanks to an expected insurance premium hike that never came, which it turned into a one-time bonus for it each of its 2,200-odd employees.
That, coupled with the positive enrollment outlook and the cost adjustment, were rare financial wins for Natrona County, which had for years been beset by the aftershocks of the energy bust.