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Education Budget Cuts

Students make their way to their buses in November at the Natrona County School District bus hub in central Casper. Lawmakers are grappling with a major shortfall in education funding.

A Senate budget provision that would cut $91 million from schools in Wyoming could result in a “bloodbath” of layoffs in Natrona County, the school board chairman said Tuesday.

The amendment is one of three actions the Legislature is considering to tackle the education funding crisis, superintendent Steve Hopkins told the board Monday night. In addition to the budget amendment, the Senate advanced a bill to cut between $60 million and $80 million, and a House omnibus measure would address the problem through savings, a potential sales tax increase and cuts, which after three years would reach around $80 million.

Aside from a few questions from board member Dave Applegate, the trustees were silent. The fact that there would be cuts wasn’t news. The Legislature is trying to grapple with an education funding shortfall that could reach $400 million annually in the coming years. Gov. Matt Mead has called it a crisis.

And the cuts would be significant to Natrona County: Tanya Southerland, the spokeswoman for the district, said the $91 million provision would mean an $11 million cut to the district, the entirety of which would come next year. The omnibus would result in a $4.1 million hit. The exact impact of the Senate bill is unknown, Southerland said.

Those numbers are significant, but Hopkins reminded the trustees that neither the bills nor the amendment were final. All three were still subject to legislative negotiations. And the imposing $91 million cut, advanced by the Senate on Friday, appears to be a bargaining chip: Senate Majority Leader Drew Perkins said Monday that it was a “vehicle for negotiations with the House.

Boyd Brown, the superintendent of Campbell County School District No. 1, speculated last week that the amendment would be used to get rid of the sales tax provision in the omnibus bill.

If the $91 million is just a bargaining chip, that may be good for Natrona County. Board chairman Kevin Christopherson said Tuesday that if the $91 million cut rolled into effect next year, it would be a hammer that would force the district to lay off faculty and staff.

It would be “impossible” to handle that level of loss without layoffs, he said, and it would “be a bloodbath, here and across the state.”

Christopherson said what Hopkins has repeated in the past. The district knows there will be cuts, and officials here want those reductions to be phased in over two to three years.

The omnibus bill would do just that. It would still mean $4 million in cuts per year, Christopherson and Hopkins said, but the chairman said the district could handle that.

The district has been preparing for two years, Christopherson said, and everything is on the table to survive the crisis. The central office has cut more than 20 positions through attrition, Hopkins has said. The district has been reviewing its programs, and a study of the district’s facilities recommended selling several buildings. Grant Elementary School also will close at the end of this school year.

Grant needs significant repairs and is the victim of a drop in enrollment likely caused by the downturn in the economy. Hopkins announced Monday night that compared to this time last year, district enrollment is down 200 elementary students and 100 students overall.

That’s just a first look, Hopkins stressed repeatedly, and it’s consistent for where the district has been this year. But it means the district’s capacity issue isn’t going away.

“We already had excess capacity even after cutting Grant back,” Christopherson said. “There might be changes, where we’re headed.”

It also means the district might lose funding. The amount of money distributed to school districts is determined by a measurement of attendance, called average daily membership, or ADM. A drop in enrollment means a potential drop in funding from the state.

On top of that, both the Senate and the House bill would change how ADM is calculated. Currently, a student is counted as full time if he or she is at school for more than 50 percent of the day. Under both bills, that student would have to be at school for 80 percent of the day to be considered full time.

That would affect around 500 high school students in Natrona County, officials said. Each full-time student is worth about $15,000 in funding.

Speaking Monday night at the board meeting as members talked about the potential rule change, Christopherson said the board needed to focus on what’s best for the student, rather than doing something for the money.

On Tuesday, he said he was confident in the district’s ability to get through the crisis. He noted that the districts had been well funded by the state for years, and that the situation might be an opportunity to trim fat and waste in the education system.

“This is making everybody step back and look at what they don’t need,” Christopherson said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is a bad thing if you have to start laying off teachers and employees.”

“We can do it,” he added. “I’m not even nervous about it. We can get it done.”

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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