SWEETWATER COUNTY — Sweetwater County School District (SCSD) No. 1 was joined by SCSD No. 2 and a few local legislators Wednesday night for an informational virtual meeting regarding upcoming legislation targeted at K-12 education funding.
There are several bills in the upcoming legislative session that have been drafted to cut K-12 funding. One of these bills is House Bill 61, which aims to cut the School Foundation Program Account by $100 million starting Fiscal Year 2022, and each year thereafter. That equates about a 7 percent decrease in funding, or $1,000 per student in Wyoming, according to Chris Dean, SCSD No. 2 Business Manager.
The two school boards expressed their concerns during the meeting, in which Wyoming House of Representative members Chad Banks, Clark Stith, and Scott Heiner were in attendance.
Difficulties in Recruiting Teachers
SCSD No. 1 Superintendent Kelly McGovern said the district already has trouble recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers, and that cuts in funding will just further this issue. SCSD No. 1 has become reliant on hiring longterm substitutes to fill in positions they cannot fill.
Some legislation proposes moving salaries out of the School Foundation Program, according to McGovern, while another bill aims to cut professional development days, which in turn cuts teachers’ pay by a few days. McGovern said there is a teacher shortage nationally, and Wyoming will have an even tougher time competing with other states for high-quality teachers if the proposed cuts are passed.
“When they leave, they do not come back,” McGovern said of teachers that leave the state.
SCSD No. 1 Human Resources Director Nicole Bolton said the district’s budget has already been impacted by a decrease in enrollment and the effects of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. With the proposed cut to education funding, she said the district, as well as district’s across the state, will have a hard time recovering.
“We’re not going to recover it and our kids suffer at that expense,” Bolton said.
“No More Fat” To Trim
McGovern said that there are rumors that administrator salaries take up about 50 percent of SCSD No. 1’s budget, however, that is not true. She said about 10 to 12 percent of the budget goes to administrative salaries.
“In our budget, we have no more fat,” McGovern said.
She said 148 classified, certified, and central office positions in SCSD No. 1 have already been riffed or absorbed over the last few years. According to McGovern, if they have to do more layoffs, they will have to start eliminating classes and class sizes will increase exponentially.
Steve Core, SCSD No. 2 Board Chairman, said 18 certified teachers either took the early retirement buyout the district offered or are resigning, and they are only planning on refilling four to five of those positions. Carol Jelaco, SCSD No. 1 Board Chairwoman, said they also offered an early retirement program, of which they don’t plan to refill any of those 23 positions.
Activities On The Chopping Block
There is a new bill, HB 129, that was recently introduced that proposes all co-curricular activities be defunded by the state, including transportation reimbursements. Core said at Green River High School alone, there are 83 percent of the 750 students who participate in activities.
McGovern said in SCSD No. 1, they offer activities such as drama, Future Farmers of America, National Honor Society, and a number of academies that help prepare students for careers and teach them additional material not taught in the classroom.
She said Wyoming is known for quality education, and cutting activities will have negative effects on students.
Andrea Summers, the Farson-Eden representative on the SCSD No. 1 Board of Trustees, said consolidating the school districts will also have negative impacts on not only the students, but entire communities.
She said that small communities lose their voice when districts are consolidated, and that schools will close as a result like they did in the 60s and 70s.
She added that in Farson-Eden, the school is the heart of the community. The school acts as an important community building that is home of the community’s library, hosts blood drives, and much more. If the school closed, Summers said there would be a “devastating hole” in the community.
Education vs. Other Important Programs
Representative Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said that on one side, there is a bill that proposes a $100 million cut, and on the other side is a proposal to cut about $49 million from education.
“That’s the world we’re living in,” Stith said.
Stith said he proposed a bill that would designate data centers sales tax exemptions to education, which would be about $16 million. However, he said the revenue committee voted against this bill 6-3.
Though he said he does not have the solution, Stith said neither revenue increases nor cuts are enough. Both have to happen.
“I don’t know that $100 million or seven percent will be cut out of K-12, but it’s going to be a big number and it’s going to hurt. I think that’s the reality of what’s going to happen,” Stith said.
Stith noted that between 2010 and 2020, school district funding was cut by six percent, while the rest of the government was cut by 25 percent. In other words, for every $6 K-12 funding lost, the Wyoming Department of Health lost $25. He said that includes programs for seniors, vaccinations for children, and mental health programs.
Core pointed out that the legislature is not bound by a Wyoming Supreme Court decision to fund the rest of the government like it is for K-12 funding. He added that he was disappointed in the longtime legislators who saw this problem coming and continued to “kick the can down the road.”
The longtime legislators, shame on you that we have come to this point where we have to cut $100 million when we could have been cutting $10 million here, $15 million there.~SCSD No. 2 Board Chairman Steve Core
Core described the issue as a “legislative problem” that has landed in the school districts’ laps.
Max Mickelson, SCSD No. 1 Board Trustee, said that no one wants to see programs for seniors or mental health be eliminated, but the cuts to education funding will not only be negative for the future of the state’s kids, but will have negative impacts on the economy.
Education and A Diversified Economy
Core said schools are a huge part of economic development, which is a primary focus of the state. He noted that when the state has to cut hundreds of teachers, all of those teachers and their families leave the state.
McGovern and Bolton both also noted that education is crucial to the economy. McGovern said it is the “task of our legislature” to find revenue sources for the state. Bolton said it is not fair that any of the state’s entities are having to make drastic cuts, but it is due to lack of diversified revenue.
Mickelson said lack of funding for education is bad for the economy, and criticized the legislators who signed a pledge to not raise taxes.
“Every person who has signed that pledge that they will not raise taxes, every person who votes against new revenues has done not only a great disservice to our state, but right here,” he said, pointing to his young daughter.
Both Mickelson and Core noted their disappointment that not more representatives were present at the meeting.
Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, said there were 18 candidates in the House who took that pledge to not raise taxes. He added that the Legislature cannot seem to pass revenue proposals, and that Wyoming voters need to vote on more than just the candidate’s party affiliation.
“If we continue to only vote based on a letter beside someone’s name, and we’re not looking at who those candidates are, what those candidates stand for, what they represent, and what they will represent when they go to Cheyenne, this is what we end up with,” Banks said.
Banks said he enjoys paying low taxes in Wyoming, but that if the state wants to be successful, voters and legislators alike will have to do something different. He pointed out that the mineral industry will no longer balance the budget, so Wyomingites will have to ask themselves what services they are willing to pay for.
The Wyoming Legislature reconvenes March 1 and will start acting on these proposed bills. The full meeting can be viewed below.