The Natrona County School District is bracing for projected annual cuts of $13 million, a significant blow to the district’s coffers that eclipses the entirety of the reductions from the most recent round of reductions.
The $13 million is the “intermediate” projection, the middle road between a more optimistic cut of $6 million a year and the pessimistic estimate of $23 million, which is a more than 10 percent cut to the district’s general fund budget. In any of the cases, the grim projections are worse than the $12 million the district had to trim over three years beginning in 2017, reductions that prompted school closures and the elimination of vacant jobs. Under the intermediate middle ground that soon-to-be superintendent Mike Jennings suggested was most likely, each year’s cuts would be worse than the totality of the last wave of reductions.
The estimates are based off state projections, which suggest that overall school funding may drop by as much as half a billion dollars over the next three years. That’s on top of an existing school funding deficit that’s more than $200 million.
Jennings told the school board Monday that the projections were “unimaginable just a few months ago,” when the Legislature voted to boost school funding. But Wyoming’s economy has been hammered over that time. Most significantly, the energy industries — which account for more than two-thirds of the state’s school funding — have dropped precipitously. The ongoing pandemic response has further dampened the economy.
Jennings said that the cuts — the intermediate scenario would mean $39 in three years here — could not be absorbed via administrative cuts and position eliminations, which were used when the state cut funding a few years ago. The district closed five schools to save money over that time too.
In any discussion of budget cuts, the grim reality is that the district’s dollars are overwhelmingly spent on salary and benefits for its more than 2,000 employees. While the district avoided layoffs in 2017, it instituted an incentive for staffers to announce their retirements ahead of time. Dozens of positions were eliminated at the district’s central offices, and more granular budgets were cut.
There are, of course, caveats. The Legislature could approve new funding methods to make schools whole. The state is about to undertake recalibration — the process by which the education system is studied, designed and price tagged — and all signs point to a robust discussion about what schools offer students. Depending on what happens during recalibration — if the Legislature decides to require fewer things — there may be cuts that way. Education has a special place in Wyoming’s constitution, a place enshrined by state Supreme Court decisions that make broad-scale cuts legally tenuous.
The situation could be further worsened if families flee the state as the economy tanks, as many did in 2017. Because district funding in Wyoming is pegged to how many students are in a district, departing families mean departing dollars, a funding suck that’s above and beyond any other state funding cuts. Natrona County’s enrollment plummeted during the last bust, costing it $5 million (enrollment has since boomeranged back to levels higher than pre-bust).
There is an existing backstop to school cuts. During the last round of reductions that started in 2017, the Legislature instituted a law to use its primary piggy bank to fill any hole in the education budget. When that piggy bank dips below $500 million, a sales tax increase kicks in, Rep. David Northrup — a Powell Republican who chairs the House’s education committee — said last month.
But Northrup warned that legislators “have to do something.”
“First I thought we’d be after a couple hundred million dollars,” he said, referring to the current school funding shortfall. “I’m not sure we can cut — $200 million is a pretty good chunk of change. When you get to the bigger districts, you’re talking jobs.”
Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the state was heading into “the unknown.”
“We know that minerals are really bottoming out right now,” she said. “I’m not sure where we’re going.”
The Natrona County school board absorbed the projections Monday largely in silence. Jennings said administrators were already preparing plans to mitigate some of the losses, including using one-time funding. The district will also receive more than $4 million from the federal government’s pandemic stimulus, though that money can only be used for costs associated with the disease, rather than for ongoing expenses like salaries and benefits.