Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
That’s what school districts across the state are doing in preparation for inevitable budget cuts. Gov. Matt Mead announced Nov. 30 that Wyoming’s public school system will face a shortfall of up to $700 million in the next two-year budget cycle, or biennium.
The state cannot sustain the current level of education spending due to tough economic times and a decline in the energy sector that have led to a reduction in tax revenue, Mead said.
“It’s at a point that even if today oil is back over $100 and we’re shipping ... tons of coal out of this state per year,” Mead said, it still wouldn’t be enough to combat the decline in revenue.
“I can’t stress enough that we have a real crisis on our hands,” Mead said.
The worst-case scenario for Teton County School District would be a cut of $3.8 million, or an 8 percent reduction. The best-case scenario would be a cut of $188,000, or a 0.4 percent reduction, Superintendent Gillian Chapman said.
“The state has had to cut other agencies by 8 percent, and schools haven’t had to take that kind of reduction,” Chapman told parents Monday night. “That may not seem fair, but it makes no sense to reduce our funding. I hope that 8 percent is just a number that is floating out there.”
Chapman said the district is doing everything possible to prepare.
“We’re doing everything we can so we’re not in a crisis,” she said.
Impact on teachers
A report by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee showed a dire prediction: The state’s education system is projected to be at a $1.8 billion deficit by fiscal year 2022. The report said that if the state cuts education spending to match current revenue, 1 out of every 6 teachers would have to be laid off.
“That will ruin our communities,” Chapman said. That would demonstrate that “education is no longer a priority.”
“We have a rainy day fund, maybe it is time to use it,” she said.
In Teton County staff salaries and benefits account for 85 percent of the district’s budget. In the worst-case scenario of a $3.8 million cut, Chapman said roughly 38 teachers across the nine buildings would need to be let go.
“I honestly don’t know where I would begin with that kind of number,” Chapman told parents. “It is something that would devastate our school district.”
Despite enrollment growing in the middle and high schools, the district is not in a position to hire new staff.
“We won’t be able to add additional teachers,” Chapman said. Until the district finds out from the Legislature exactly what is happening, she said, they will not operate under the need for a staffing freeze.
If the district sticks with its current schedule for the middle school and the high school, Chapman said staff would need to be added — but then teachers would end up sharing rooms. The likely solution is teachers teaching more periods each day and having less planning time — something Chapman doesn’t think is ideal.
The district is seeking input from all stakeholders as it considers different scheduling.
In addition to not hiring more staff, Mead said lawmakers have floated options that include expanding class sizes, consolidating school districts and reviewing special education and transportation costs.
He’s acknowledged that the state “can’t cut its way out of this.” While Mead said he wasn’t a big fan of tax increases, he’s advocating for a task force to address the issue of school funding and believes it is urgent that it form soon.
“I would hate for the Legislature to become impatient in the face of a temporary budget shortfall,” Chapman said. “They can’t cut their way out of this model. They have to find new ways of bringing in revenue.”
The district took a $480,000 cut for fiscal year 2016 — a 1 percent reduction that all Wyoming school districts faced.
Local schools were lucky in the sense that district enrollment is growing, and funding continues to roll in per child from the state.
“We are particularly fortunate because enrollment is growing,” Chapman said, calling it a “double whammy” for other schools hit with decreasing enrollment and budget cuts. Elsewhere in the state some districts could face cuts of $10 million to $15 million, depending on the size of their budget.
“The pain wasn’t all that real,” Chapman said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
In response to previous reductions the district cut supplies and materials to classrooms by 10 percent, didn’t renew an expensive contract with the University of Washington for curriculum assessments and didn’t fill some positions of staff who retired or resigned.
“Last year, the board wanted reductions as far away from the classroom as possible,” Chapman said. She said that despite tough financial times she stands by the district’s decision to provide every student an iPad or laptop, spending $650,000 for a lease with Apple.
“We could actually cut more to classroom supplies due to the blended learning initiative,” she said. “We’ve seen a reduction in copies and materials, and building budgets used to be used to purchase technology.”
Chapman said the district was “already spending that much money” on a “hodgepodge” of technology. Now it’s more efficient.
One change in the district last fiscal year that caught school trustees’ attention was a $400,000 increase in central office spending. The increase was the result of creating new jobs, including a chief operating officer, director of second language learning and data coordinator, as well as changes in the positions of superintendent and facilities director. The district is hiring an executive director of resources and a business manager. Chapman called it “a reorganization, not a budget increase.”
“It’s reflective of a previous audit saying we needed more of a segregation of duties,” she said. “We were woefully understaffed in human resources.”
Chapman said that as the district faces budget cuts, it’s important to stay calm, not speculate too much and seek community input.
“It’s a conversation that needs to involve community members, parents, administrators and teachers,” she said. “I don’t anticipate making any kinds of decisions prematurely. We are still in the information gathering stage, and I don’t want people to panic.”
Chapman thanked local representatives for their work.
“Our local reps have been fabulous, I can’t say enough for them,” she said. “They have served Teton County really well.”