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State sets preliminary facilities budget in 'anomalous' year
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State sets preliminary facilities budget in 'anomalous' year

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KWHS Construction

Workers remove concrete forms as other crews grade the soil surrounding Harry Geldien Stadium in 2017 at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper. The state's plans for school building have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of life, even how the state plans for its school building needs.

The Legislature’s Joint School Facilities Committee heard a preliminary budget Thursday outlining just over $24 million in expenses for the 22-23 academic year. The money will cover major maintenance projects, a few demolitions, leases for three charter school buildings and a variety of other district-level projects.

The process to set the budget is routine and statutorily mandated, but the pandemic complicated things this year. Not everyone was happy with the data used to predict the budget needs.

Brick-and-mortar enrollment dropped nearly 7% statewide between this school year and last, according to state data. Meetings between the State Construction Department (overseer of the facilities commission) and districts revealed numerous other shifts that could affect facility needs. Those findings were presented at a May commission meeting.

Forty-one of the state’s 48 districts saw decreased in-person attendance. Some districts’ virtual programs more than doubled, the report found. In Natrona County, the program grew from serving fewer than 100 students to nearly 1,000 during the 2020-21 year. About 400 students here are enrolled virtually for the coming fall.

The report noted homeschooling in Wyoming has increased most among elementary students, but didn’t provide exact figures. It also noted investments in broadband internet have made it easier for parents to work from home, meaning some students may not return to a school building this fall.

“The long-term impact of societal responses to the pandemic is not yet fully known. Some districts maintain that everything will return to normal next year, while others are unsure, and still others are confident that it will not,” the report at one point concludes.

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However, the department “has also received reports that out-of-state families have relocated to Wyoming to attend school, because our schools have been open for students to attend in person,” according to the report. It also notes that enrollment has likely shifted over the year, after the October data collection occurred.

Administrators in Cheyenne’s school district in March penned a letter to the facilities commission raising that exact concern.

“(The district) is deeply concerned about the enrollment data being used in this year’s facility plan...the enrollment data were collected at a point in time when enrollment was artificially low due to COVID-19,” that letter begins.

It continues, “(The district) feels it is contrary to legislative intent to exclude thousands of LCSD1 students from capacity calculations who are receiving instruction through an alternative medium during a global pandemic.”

The district recommended the commission not use this school year’s data for facility planning, instead replacing this years’ figure with the average of the three years’ prior.

It’s unclear if the state will act on those suggestions, but a note in the facilities commission report does offer a compromise.

“Perhaps an approach using the current or the 3-year rolling average, whichever is greater, could honor both scenarios while allowing for an analysis that over time is more fluid than static and more representative of the anomaly and its ripple effects than discarding the data entirely,” the report reads.

The budget won’t be finalized until July, when the State Facilities Commission is set to formally adopt the document. That meeting is scheduled for July 22.

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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