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First graders Sienna Brahaney and Shyla Simmons talk with teaching assistant Donna Oliver in May at University Park Elementary School. A proposal discussed Thursday by state lawmakers would cut an estimated $4.7 million from Natrona County schools.

Natrona County School District would lose nearly $4.7 million under a proposal presented to education lawmakers Thursday.

The report, presented by legislative consultant Lori Taylor at Thursday’s meeting of the Joint Education Committee, would update one of the indexes used to calculate the regional cost adjustment, or RCA, which essentially provides additional funding to districts in pricier areas, like Teton County. The proposal would update what’s called the Hedonic Wage Index, which hasn’t been brought up to date since 2005.

In a memo presented to lawmakers after Taylor walked them through the report, legislative staffers estimated that Natrona County would lose $4.67 million as a result of the change. In total, updating the index would mean a statewide reduction of $6.3 million to Wyoming schools.

Fourteen districts would lose money, nine would receive more funding, and 25 would be unaffected by the change. Of those that would lose money, none come anywhere near the losses that would be suffered by Natrona County. Indeed, the closest would be Campbell County School District, which would lose $623,000.

The cut would be significant enough — and isolated enough — that it prompted Natrona County administrators to make a rare public comment Thursday. While officials from Wyoming’s second-largest school district are regular attendees at these legislative meetings, they rarely if ever weigh in publicly, setting them apart from their colleagues at other large districts.

“Our concern is ... the update of the 2018 Hedonic Wage Index ... disproportionately hits one school district,” testified Mike Jennings, Natrona County’s executive director for human resources.

Jennings noted that the district has already cut $10 million over recent years to deal with the statewide K-12 funding shortfall — which, combined with construction, is roughly $300 million a year. Officials here have closed five schools and eliminated — via attrition — roughly 220 positions.

In an interview with the Star-Tribune, Jennings demurred when asked how the district would handle a fresh reduction of nearly $4.7 million. But he noted that there isn’t another school to close and that 85 percent of the district’s budget is tied up in salaries and benefits.

“We’d have to look at what other strategies we can employ,” he said.

It’s not exactly clear what about the updated index would hurt Natrona County so badly. Rep. Debbie Bovee, a Casper Democrat, and Teton County school board vice chairwoman Janine Bay Teske both questioned what set the district apart.

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The report doesn’t go into detail about Natrona County. It does, however, note a handful of areas where it differs from the current index, areas that likely hold the answers to the severity of the Natrona County School District’s possible cut: The updated index would take the county wage index, population index and the percent of English language learners into account and would not include a handful of other things, like how many mobile students a district has or the supplemental salaries of staff.

It’s unclear what the committee will do next. After public testimony concluded Thursday afternoon, lawmakers moved on to their next topic without discussing the index change. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, said he suspected the regional cost adjustment would come up again Friday, when lawmakers will also discuss the inflation adjustment districts receive.

Jennings and Taylor, the legislative consultant who presented the report, both noted that legislators have options beyond just updating the index and letting the districts deal with the results. For instance, Taylor told lawmakers they can phase in the adjustment slowly, though that would still cost Natrona County $936,000 in the first year.

They could also have every district tie their RCA to the Hedonic Wage Index, rather than the current system, which ties each district’s to the best of three options. That system, Taylor wrote, would see every district’s adjustment increase — except for Teton County.

Jennings said that option would be a fair alternative.

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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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