Despite six months of angst over state funding, Teton County School District No. 1 trustees approved a $49.16 million budget for 2018 that’s half a million dollars higher than 2017’s.
Teton County School District received more money from the state this year than last, but most of those funds are spoken for, and the funding may not be permanent.
“It looks like we had an increase, a substantial increase,” said Kristen Voorhees, the district’s executive director of resources. “But if you look at it apples to apples, we would have a cut.”
This winter the Wyoming Legislature debated how to deal with a projected $400 million shortfall in the next fiscal year. Legislators came out of the session with only $34.5 million in cuts statewide and having formed a committee to discuss additional funding solutions this summer.
According to State Superintendent Jillian Balow, the state “faces a cumulative shortfall of over $1.5 billion in our school operations account and roughly $500 million in our school construction account through the year 2022.”
The board of trustees approved the district’s budget on July 12 for fiscal year 2018. One reason the district’s funding from the state increased is the regional cost of living adjustment, a crucial part of the school district’s effort to keep teachers and staff in a valley with a high cost of living. It helps the school district retain and attract quality people, but it fluctuates year by year and could decrease in the future.
This year the school district received a 6 percent increase, bringing funding to 138 percent of the Wyoming average.
“While that looks relatively high compared to the rest of Wyoming, our actual cost of living is even higher than that,” Voorhees said.
In the second quarter of 2016 the actual cost of living in Jackson is closer to 150 percent of the cost of living in Wyoming on average. The district spends roughly 86 percent of its budget on staff salaries and benefits.
Another change was moving funding for summer school, extended day programming and instructional facilitators — coaches for teachers who focus on professional development — from external grants to block grants. So while it looks like the district got more money from the state, it used to be allocated elsewhere and not in the general fund.
Not so much ‘use or lose it’
“That’s a change in mindset,” said Charlotte Reynolds, information coordinator. “It used to be use it or lose it.”
As an external grant, funding for those programs and staffers could be used only for those things, and the state wanted districts to spend it all. Now, with funding within the block grant, district officials can decide how they spend it.
“Before we didn’t have to weigh it,” Reynolds said. “Now we have to weigh it against what are the district priorities and goals.”
Voorhees said the district has been able to “stay above water” by finding efficiencies within staffing. When the director of student services, Chad Ransom, took a leave of absence for next year the district divided the responsibilities of his role among people already employed by the district instead of hiring someone to fill his role.
The district also moved three instructional facilitators into other positions that needed to be filled.
“We want to be efficient districtwide with all of our spending,” Voorhees said.
Reynolds said that “historically, we didn’t have to do that” as much.
“Our mindset has to change,” Reynolds said. “We need to think about where the need is.”
The “economics aren’t hitting us” as hard as other districts, Voorhees said. Many counties in the state are grappling with falling student enrollment and decreasing costs of living, something Voorhees called a “double whammy.”
Districts get money based on average daily attendance, a fixed amount per student. When local economies tank and families move, schools lose money.
Sewer line squabble
Trustees Keith Gingery and Janine Teske voted against the budget on principle because it included $300,000 for a bigger sewer main at Munger Mountain Elementary School. Gingery and Teske voted against changing the sewer main size originally and said they wanted to be consistent in their position.
“We are using funds that the taxpayers have given us to educate our kids to pay for a sewer line,” Teske said. She asked for proof that the district could recoup the funds.
“I’ve asked for assurances that we are going to be paid,” Teske said. “I don’t have that. To me this is fraught with risk.”
When Teske fretted about the inclusion of the line item, Chairwoman Kate Mead told her that “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
The board approved the move to dip into the district’s cash reserves — $7.5 million — for $300,000 for the bigger sewer main. Money not spent one year automatically funnels into the cash reserves, which can’t exceed 15 percent of the district’s block grant.
“We in this district have done a tremendous job in building these cash reserves,” Voorhees said. “When I say we are stable and on track, that’s what I’m talking about. We had a pretty healthy cash reserve this year, and after this year, it’s really healthy.”
The district’s finance office is looking toward the future with trepidation. The school funding model might be changed. Talks start this summer, which would affect the fiscal year 2019 budget.
It’s too early to know what might be cut, Voorhees said. She hopes the consultant hired by the state will get stakeholder feedback.
Despite worries, Voorhees thinks district finances are in good shape.
“I think we’re financially healthy,” she said. “I think we have very responsible budget owners, and I do think they do a really great job.”
Voorhees said the district’s priority will remain putting students first.
“Our job is to educate kids,” she said. “Whatever it takes to give the best possible education is the most important thing.”