Students line up for their bus ride home last year at the Natrona County School District bus hub in central Casper. Enrollment in Wyoming K-12 schools increased for the first time since the economic bust.

There are 53 more students attending K-12 schools in Wyoming than there were last year, the state Department of Education announced last week, the first positive growth since the economic bust three years ago.

In all, there are 93,029 students enrolled across Wyoming’s 48 school districts, compared to 92,976 last year, as measured by a key enrollment calculation that determines school funding. It’s a positive sign for a public education system that’s been besieged by generally dropping enrollment and budget cuts for more than two years.

Funding for Wyoming school districts is driven by students in seats. The funding model allocates a certain amount of money per student, and when a district’s population drops, it loses funding as a result.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Superintendent Jillian Balow praised the state’s education system and tied its success to the continuing efforts to attract new businesses and industries to Wyoming, a state historically tied — for better and for worse — to the fortunes of the energy industry.

“As our state is focused on economic diversity, it’s encouraging to see a slight increase in school enrollment,” Balow said. “Wyoming has a quality education system, and it is a factor families certainly consider when moving to or staying in Wyoming.”

Natrona County School District, the second-largest district in the state, gained 64 students to 13,039, up from 12,975. The district knew its enrollment would be up; figures from a 10-day count in September showed a strong uptick of 184 students. But the Education Department’s figures match the enrollment calculation used to determine funding, which is known as average daily membership and is typically lower than the number of students who show up for school in September.

In September, the district’s executive director for human resources, Mike Jennings, told the Star-Tribune that he was optimistic about how its average daily membership, or ADM, figures would end up. But district officials had previously been preparing for the worst: Budget projections from July showed the district was bracing for a falling ADM in the coming years.

In June, Superintendent Steve Hopkins said he was hoping for flat enrollment in the 2018-19 academic year but was bracing for more decline. Jennings said in September that the district wasn’t sure why it had seen gains and was hesitant to predict any future growth based off of this year’s success.

The economic bust — and the families and students that left the state with the money and jobs — was not kind to Wyoming’s schools, and Natrona County’s fared no better. Because of the number of elementary students who the left district between 2014 and 2017, coupled with millions in state cuts, the school board here has voted to close five schools since November 2016.

Natrona County’s 64 student gain was the third-strongest gain in the state. Sheridan County No. 1, based in Ranchester, gained 88, and the state’s largest district, Laramie County No. 1, had 81 new students.

In all, 22 districts gained students, one — Laramie No. 2 — stayed the same, and 25 districts lost enrollment. The largest declines came in Sweetwater County, where No. 1 lost 101 students, and No. 2 lost 62.

While the overall net gain is a good sign, it’s too early to declare a new day for Wyoming’s education system. The state’s economy is gaining ground and enrollment is picking back up, but there still remains a deficit in funding. Since the bust, legislators have primarily leaned on cuts to fill in that fiscal hole. It’s unclear what the new Legislature will do, under the leadership of new Senate President Drew Perkins and re-elected House Speaker Steve Harshman, to deal with what remains of the shortfall.

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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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