Munger Mountain Elementary School

Felix Martinez, a new fourth-grade teacher at Munger Mountain Elementary School, tells his students about his home country of Spain on the first day of school. The operational expenses of Munger Mountain Elementary School — which will not be reimbursed by the state for the first year — account for $358,829 of the district’s $613,257 deficit in fiscal year 2019.

Faced with a $1.2-million-plus shortfall in the coming years — for reasons including a new school opening and statewide budget cuts — school administrators are surveying staff before deciding how to proceed.

There are numerous reasons for the gap between Teton County School District No. 1 budgeted expenditures and the state’s block grant, amounting to just over $600,000 in each of fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

In fiscal year 2019 a projected gap of $613,257 can be explained by the opening of the new elementary school, an ongoing conversation about employee benefits (cut last year) and the backdrop of statewide education funding reductions.

“That deficit is really due to cuts at the state level,” said Kristin Voorhees, the district’s executive director of resources. “Because they continue to eat away at our foundation guarantee and the funding model, that’s where the deficit is really coming from. And in order for us to adjust we have to make changes on our side, whether that’s the compensation package or the operating budget. We wouldn’t have a deficit if the state Legislature left the model alone.”

The operational expenses of Munger Mountain Elementary School — not reimbursed by the state for the first year — account for $358,829 of the deficit. Because the state funds maintenance and utilities based on the previous year’s expenses, new schools aren’t covered. The reverse is true if a district closes a school: It’s funded for a building that’s no longer open.

The board of trustees voted in April to dip into cash reserves to pay for that shortfall. The expenses will continue, but the district will be funded for them in the coming years.

The board also dipped into cash reserves to lighten the blow of employee benefit cuts this spring. That accounts for the remaining $254,428 of the fiscal year 2019 deficit.

“That delta is due to the board agreeing to take money out of cash reserves in order to give staff and administration time to work through a compensation package for next year that makes sense,” Voorhees said. “That doesn’t mean all of those reductions have to come from the compensation package, but it’s really the largest part of our budget.”

Salaries and benefits account for roughly 87 percent of the district’s expenses. Many line items in the operational budget, like building heat or maintenance, are hard to slash.

“Once you take out the fixed costs, you know, there just isn’t that much money left,” Voorhees said.

Though the district has roughly $8.5 million in cash reserves, Voorhees said those funds aren’t a desirable long-term solution.

“We can’t continue to operate at a deficit or we’ll consume our cash reserves,” she said.

And cash reserves may not always be a dependable fail-safe. There’s draft legislation that could change how much money school districts can keep in their reserves.

2020 is a different case

In fiscal year 2020 the deficit is projected to be $617,867. Though that number is close to the fiscal year 2019 deficit, there is no connection.

“They’re completely unrelated numbers; they just look similar,” Voorhees said.

State reductions often compound over time. For example, the fiscal year 2020 deficit includes a known state funding cut reduction of $363,439 — two-thirds of a funding cut phased in over two years, the first third occurring during fiscal year 2019 along with previous cuts — as well as a deficit in the general expenditures budget.

“It just gets a little wonky,” Voorhees said. “It’s helpful to think of our funding model as a fluid document that’s constantly changing.”

Voorhees hopes to have an idea of how to tackle fiscal year 2020 before the legislative session begins.

“Then, if nothing traumatic happens in February, we’ll have our compensation package and our budget ready to roll,” she said.

Looking far out is purposeful.

“The last couple years the board has felt like they’re in a hurry to make a decision; staff has felt that way,” Voorhees said. “So we’re really trying hard to give everybody time to consider, time to give feedback, time to make proposals, so we can have a more collaborative process.”

Trustee Betsy Carlin said she trusts that process.

“Deficits and budget cuts are always daunting, especially when it is associated with the education of our children,” she said. “I feel hopeful that with collaboration and thoughtful decision making the TCSD board of trustees, TCSD administrative staff and the TCEA [Teton County Education Association] will find the best possible solutions to the challenges we face. That has been my experience over the last two years, and I cannot imagine it will change now.”

Working on next steps

In addition to seeking feedback from employees, Voorhees and the district’s high-level administrators are “constantly” having conversations about efficiencies.

“We’re always talking about, ‘Is this what’s best for kids?’ ‘Does it align with our strategic plan?’ ‘Is this the best use of the money?’” she said. “We do a really thorough process behind closed doors of pretty much every expense that comes through. People don’t see that, and they don’t know that’s happening, but that’s an ongoing process that’s always happening.”

Topics under consideration, she said, are the best way to move forward with student and staff technology device renewals and how to be invested in the blended learning initiative while being fiscally responsible.

A completed proposal won’t be expected until the new year, but they will present some ideas in December.

Per state statute, the budget isn’t approved until the third week of July.

As Voorhees and Superintendent Gillian Chapman gather staff feedback, Voorhees must keep in the back of her mind that the state’s block grant of roughly $50.4 million could change — again. She’s in the process of resubmitting information related to transportation and special education spending — now frozen — in years past.

“I don’t anticipate it to change a ton,” she said.

But even $100,000 up or down for Teton County schools is equivalent to a teacher’s salary and benefits.

Voorhees said getting a preliminary calculation of the block grant in the spring and approving a budget in July never used to be a problem.

“Before the last two or three years, that always worked,” she said, “because the model never changed.”

The only thing that fluctuated year over year, she said, was the average daily membership calculation — or how much the district is paid per student. Now, many more variables are changing yearly and affecting one another.

“For us, also adding a school, adding the square footage and all of that, it’s a little bit harder for us to figure out what all of those changes are going to mean,” Voorhees said.

The district is likely to be confronted with similar uncertainty when addressing secondary overcrowding with a construction remedy in the coming years.

Staff retention challenges

District leadership is keeping an eye on neighboring states like Idaho and Utah as they figure out what to do with their budgets.

Data in a report to the Joint Appropriations Committee and the Joint Education Committee in September shows that teaching salaries in Wyoming have remained flat over the last year, but they’ve increased in adjacent states and elsewhere in the country. Though wages in Wyoming are higher than in neighboring states, Wyoming’s advantage relative to the region has fallen in recent years.

Is there a tipping point at which Teton County schools could cut so much they start losing teachers? Voorhees said that day could be already here.

“When you start decreasing the amount of benefits or salary that employees get, that’s always going to have a negative impact on your resource pool,” she said.

Voorhees said some of her colleagues around the state would rather just know the end game of budget talks and get it done this year.

“Whatever it is, let’s just settle on it,” she said. “We’ll brace for impact, and then we can budget moving forward.”

For now school districts across the state are in a holding pattern as they attempt to execute long-term educational goals with short-term funding strategies.

“The reason that we face these conversations every year that are really stressful for staff, really stressful for teachers, is because the state Legislature continues to mess with the model,” Voorhees said. “That’s difficult because teachers already have a stressful job, and to continue to kick this can down the road and continue this conversation every year is not only difficult for our school district, but for all school districts in Wyoming.”

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, schools@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGschools.

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