It was the early 1980s, and Wyoming was booming. The price of crude had skyrocketed. Hourly flights from Casper to Denver served Champagne and caviar.
And then it went bust.
First-grade teacher Mary Lou Smart remembers 1986 as the year things changed, a grim time in her nearly four decades of teaching for the Campbell County School District. She was newly married, recently tenured. And seemingly overnight, teachers’ jobs were being cut in droves.
Now, she worries, the circumstances of those difficult years may be returning.
As Wyoming schools brace for what some say could be a severe bust, many remember the last time this happened — when enrollment took a nose dive as families looked for livelihoods outside the state.
Fewer families means fewer students, and ultimately fewer students translates into less money because school funding is based on enrollment. It’s a self-correcting system that officials say bends to the boom and bust nature the state’s economy. When enrollment goes up, there is more money for schools the next year. When enrollment goes down, the money gradually decreases, a soft landing that gives schools time to adjust, said Donna Little-Kaumo, superintendent of Sweetwater County School District No. 2.
But now teachers and principals are are facing additional cuts from lawmakers in Cheyenne.
“When you apply a static cut like what the (Joint Appropriations Committee) approved there is no time to adjust,” she said. “Our model is already designed to address the ebbs and flows of the economy. If they watch the enrollment they will probably get more back than the $45 million they are trying to cut.”
Looking back to
In October, there were more students enrolled in Wyoming schools than the year before, despite declines in oil, natural gas and coal.
That’s not unusual. While it often seems like the economy and enrollment dive together, seemingly overnight, the data is more nuanced, showing a seesaw effect.
In 1983, the state lost 700 kids in grades K-12. But the next year 200 came in.
It wasn’t until 1986, when the price of oil fell below $10 a barrel, that losses were extreme. More than 1,800 students left that year. The following year, 2,500 moved. Numbers climbed up slightly and then tanked again in 1990. For the next decade the state saw a yearly decrease in students.
As of today, many districts are losing kids, like sand dripping from an hourglass. It’s only a matter of time, officials say, before the money that pays for education declines significantly.
For lawmakers trying to save money, that’s a good thing, said Little-Kaumo.
Fifty-one students have left her district since January, she said.
Lincoln County School District No. 1 lost 41, said Superintendent Theresa Chaulk. That’s significant as Lincoln is one of the smaller districts in the state, with around 590 students. Thirteen districts in total lost students in the last year, despite a modest increase statewide.
Don Dihle, business manager for the Campbell County School District, is projecting that enrollment will be down significantly as early as next year.
He ran statewide numbers comparing the current situation with what happened in the mid-’80s.
“I projected the same percent of enrollment drop that happened 30 years ago to our current enrollment numbers. Basically I came up with a drop of 3,954 students over the next two years,” he said.
The first year, the enrollment decrease won’t hit as hard. School districts are guaranteed a certain level of funding per student. The state determines how many kids were in each district at the end of the year, using the larger of two numbers. One is the average attendance from the previous year. The second number is the average of the last three years. But if a bust continues, and enrollment continues to dwindle, the three-year average decreases every year.
And that means job losses, because teachers are costly.
“Eighty percent of school district budgets are caught up in staff and programs,” Little-Kaumo said. “I fear what is going to happen is people are going to lose jobs, and it is going to be hard to replace them.”
No middle ground
Planning on replacing teachers and programs when the economy bounces back is part of the boom and bust mentality of Wyoming. It’s always an extreme, and it always changes.
“Unfortunately in state history, we haven’t had a lot of cases where a boom smooths out to general prosperity, or a bust rises up to being just OK,” said Phil Roberts, a professor at the University of Wyoming, specializing in the history of the state, the West and natural resources.
There are statewide busts and localized busts, both impacting education, he said.
“I have identified 13 booms and 13 busts in Wyoming history,” he said. “There are certainly localized busts too, that happen in towns like Jeffrey City. The whole town of 2,000 people dried up. The school is a classic example of what happens in really serious busts.”
That is why school officials are asking lawmakers to wait and see before they make cuts.
When enrollment numbers are in next year, the state may already be saving the money on education, said Dihle, with Campbell County.
He and others have asked that lawmakers trust the system that funds education.
But lawmakers believe it is a mischaracterization to say the cuts undermine the system. Last year, lawmakers added a 2 percent increase to the traditional method of school funding to account for increases in personnel, cost of living and cost of materials. The cuts will come out of that addition, said Rep. Steve Harshman, a chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
“Well, I think we were very intentional to not touch the funding model. In fact, I argued against a cut to the model twice this week,” he said.
The House of Representatives voted in favor of an amendment to reduce the potential cuts Friday, but needs agreement from the Senate for the amendment to stand.
Harshman, a Republican from Casper who teaches and coaches at Natrona County High School, said the committee trusts the funding model. He acknowledged that the reduction and enrollment declines may result in a double cut for some school districts.
“There’s a few districts that will,” Harshman said. “There’s a few, no doubt. But again, this is a reduction to the increase given last year. I still think it’s more money than they had two years ago.”
Adding money one year and having to take it out the next is in line with how Roberts describes people’s response to the volatile economy.
“A lot of times people underestimate the possibility of a bust and then underestimate the possibility of getting out of one,” he said. “We say, ‘Oh no, I didn’t know this was going to happen.’ Sure enough, it’s just like the ones that preceded it.”
For the first-grade teacher nearing retirement in the Campbell School District, specific memories of 30 years ago are vague: larger classes, lots of work, lots of worry.
“I remember the sadness I felt when many people around me were scared about not having a job. It was just so, so many people,” Smart said.
This time, she’s worried about all the additional programs being cut with less money, things like teachers who are paid to spend extra time with struggling students before and after school. She also worries about her daughter, a young teacher in the district, in the same position as her mother was 30 years ago.
Political reporter Laura Hancock contributed to this report.