ROCK SPRINGS – The Sweetwater County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees has a communication challenge. Chairwoman Carol Jelaco said not only do they need to better explain the cuts they’ve been making for several school years, but they must illustrate the devastating effects proposed cuts will have on the community.
Having cut millions, eliminated more than 100 positions, and closed Lincoln Elementary School in recent years, Sweetwater No. 1 staff said they have plucked most of the low-hanging fruit from its budget but still must prepare for additional cuts that could range from $8.14 million to $24.42 million, if not more. About four-fifths of the district’s budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits, so they say they can’t imagine how 10% to 30% cuts won’t severely impact students, staff, activities and programs.
During a special meeting on Wednesday night, the board and district administration outlined suggestions they received from the cost-savings task force, the extreme measures required to operate under pending budget reductions and why they think a 1% statewide sales tax is part of the solution.
COST SAVINGS TASK FORCE UPDATE
Citing a projected $500 million shortfall for K-12 education in Wyoming, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration asked the school board to explain what a 10%, or $8.14 million, budget reduction in Sweetwater No. 1 would look like. The letter the district drafted in response, which was tabled Wednesday, included their support of a 1% statewide sales tax to support K-12 education. The letter cited input from the Cost Savings Task Force that asked the community what should be prioritized, what can be cut and what alternative revenue streams are available.
Dozens of people representing different parts of the community generated more than 80 ideas. An update provided to the school board detailed options such as switching to a four-day school week sooner, a pay-to-play activities model where $10 to $100 fees are charged per sport per participant, offering early retirement incentives to absorb positions, expanding class sizes and the teacher-to-student ratio, and closing multiple elementary schools.
The problem, however, is that the district said previous cuts have left it without enough flexibility to make the smallest of the proposed cuts without major consequences for the schools and the community they serve. A postponement of the 2021 legislative session and unclear expectations are further complicating the process, as officials aren’t sure if lawmakers’ calls for cuts are in addition to Gov. Mark Gordon’s request for a voluntary 10% reduction.
Sweetwater No. 1 Chief Financial Officer Scot Duncan said to meet the proposed 10% cut, they would have to employ multiple strategies, including the four-day school week, pay-to-play activities and athletics and closure of three elementary schools. Under a 20% cut, or $16,282,068 reduction in funding, they would need to do everything mentioned before plus close an additional four schools, for a total of seven school closures. Under the 30% cut, which amounts to about $24.4 million, he said closing all nine elementary schools combined with the previous steps would save about $21,022,687 to $22,266,370.
“You would have to close all of the elementary schools in the city of Rock Springs, in town, and then that still would not be enough,” he said. “So 30% would be a disaster for us. I don’t even know how we could do it. And even the 20% … ."
"We won’t be able to function," someone else finished for him.
In addition to legislative cuts, Duncan said their budget is growing tighter due to decreased student enrollment, since a decline in student totals means a corresponding loss of funding, and the cap on special education. He said Sweetwater No. 1 has about a $1.5 million difference between what is funded and what is required.
The report from the task force said, “The mental health needs of our students are increasing with services and supports lacking. Social work and counseling are the top related services within the district, yet elementary counselors are not funded in the model.”
Then there are the costs the district has incurred to help it protect and serve students and staff during the coronavirus pandemic. That amount continues to grow, and while grants have helped pay for some of the expenses, it is unclear how much aid will be available going forward.
More investments will be required over the next seven years, according to the task force report, as Sweetwater No. 1 will need updated curriculum resources and technology as state standards are revised and the Rock Springs Satellite High School opens in the fall. While the money for the new facility comes from a different state account, the district will be responsible for other costs like staffing.
A HISTORY OF CUTS
Sweetwater No. 1 Human Resources Director Nicole Bolton outlined budget cuts and complications dating back to the 2015-2016 school year. (See sidebar) She said the district isn’t trying to avoid cuts.
“It’s all we’ve been doing for the last five to six years,” she said. “We’re to the point where it’s going to hurt our kids significantly. And there’s not a lot to cut anymore.”
Bolton gave the example of changing class sizes. The current student-to-teacher ratio is 16:1 in kindergarten through fifth grade and 21:1 in sixth through 12th grade. An option included in the task force report is to change it to 15:1 for K-3 and 25:1 in the rest of the grades.
The uncertainty in the budget, which won’t be settled until later than usual in 2021 with the Wyoming Legislature pushing back its session to an undetermined start, has Bolton feeling nervous. She said if legislative action continues to be moved back, she’s left in limbo about what positions they try to fill. She questioned if they should hire people for jobs if they aren’t sure if they’ll have the money for the teachers when the school year starts.
Chairwoman Jelaco echoed Bolton’s sentiments, adding it will put a real “pinch” on things depending on how much lawmakers delay and cut.
CRITICAL PUBLIC COMMENTS
During public comments, which had to be submitted prior to the meeting, a majority of the responses were in opposition to the proposed 1 penny tax. Many said they wouldn’t consider a tax until cuts were made at the district level.
State Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said he was disappointed the Cost Savings Task Force’s report was reduced to a tax proposal, which he said would be regressive. He called for more cuts among the administration, and specifically questioned the vehicle allowance for the superintendent.
Later in the meeting, Trustee Max Mickelson said they could target those areas, but they would still fall way short. He said the vehicle allowance represented less than one-half of 1% of the smallest proposed cut and halving Superintendent Kelly McGovern’s salary would equal about 1%.
“Say we cut Kelly’s salary in half. That’s a percent, so we still have 99% to go,” he said.
While he did not formally submit a comment, State Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, said in the online comments, “A 1% tax is not an answer. There are far better answers.”
He suggested cutting administration salary and questioned why the district didn’t make changes in maintenance.
In response, the IT SCSD#1 account asked, “Mr. James - when looking at an $8,000,000 budget cut (on the low end) what would you suggest? We have cut several administrative positions throughout the district over the last several years.”
It noted that five years ago Sweetwater No. 1 cut six positions, including principals and Central Administration Building staff, and added a few back at the building level once the need was determined. The poster added that maintenance funding is a separate pot of money from the state than is what is being discussed.
Sweetater No. 1 Chief Information Officer Stephanie Tolman posted, “I reviewed the list....I'm unable to see the $8,000,000 in the recommendations as far as what the district can control.”
James said, “Stephanie, I never said it would add up to that, I just said that would be a place to start, I am saying they need to focus on other places than kids and teachers and taxes."
REVISING THE RECORD AND EXPECTATIONS
Following the initial batch of responses, Jelaco said, “We have probably an education issue that we need to address with the community. In some ways we have been successful in keeping the cuts from affecting our students even though the cuts have been taking place.”
Unfortunately, she said now it’s getting to the point where students and their families will feel the impact, such as proposed changes to classroom sizes and programs.
Then it was noted that a letter from Mark Chollak, a Rock Springs High School teacher and representative of the Sweetwater Education Association, was left out of the public comments. He said several politicians have gotten elected making the easy but irresponsible pledge to not raise taxes. While the amount Wyoming spends on education makes it an easy target, Chollak said a 2017 report commissioned by the Legislature found it was already underfunded by $50 million.
“The truth is, schools have been making cuts for many years, stretching back to the days when Wyoming was awash in money from the energy sector,” he said.
He said over the past eight years or so, Sweetater No. 1 has cut more than $8 million and “pruned the tree to the point where the expectations for what we can offer in the future need to be re-examined.” Chollak said it is time for Wyoming residents to take responsibility for themselves instead of relying on private corporations and federal funds to support the economy and public services.
“Perhaps by swallowing a bitter pill now, we can provide a more stable future so that we no longer need to rely on other people’s money or the wild whims of global markets. When we pay our own way, then we can truly say Wyoming stands for rugged individualism,” he said.
NO MORE FAT TO TRIM
Bolton said Gov. Gordon has been warning the public for years that the state cannot cut its way out of financial trouble.
“Yet here we are, continuing to try to cut our way out of a crisis without bringing in any new revenue,” she said.
“It does not take a mathematician to understand that one can only cut so much without bringing in revenue before they do not have enough to adequately educate our students.”
She said that the district runs very lean, despite some public perceptions, with 80% of the budget directed to salaries and benefits, and there is no more fat to trim.
“These kind of proposed potential cuts will equate to having to close three to four schools,” Bolton said. “And I know nobody wants to hear that, but guess what? The amount that they’re proposing, it might be more. Cut every administrator in this district, we’re not going to come close.”
She said closing multiple schools will have devastating effects on the community, such as businesses losing workers when spouses lose their jobs, families leaving schools, empty homes decreasing property values and an overall reduced interest in businesses relocating to the deprived area.
After acknowledging the comments that people wanted cuts before supporting a tax, she said, “Well the reality is we’ve been making cuts for the past several years.”
She said it’s time to look at new revenue streams to support the future of our state. Other trustees said cuts alone won’t bridge the financial gaps.
“It is dishonest and reckless to continue the false narrative that any tax is bad and unacceptable,” Mickelson said. “And I am extremely tired of people who are willing to live for ideology and not reality, because they are having a negative impact on our communities and on our state every day.”
When it comes to possible cuts, he highlighted the $1.6 million budgeted for school activities when other states expect families to bear thousands of dollars in costs. This is the type of thing that could be sacrificed when districts must cut to the core.
“So y’all don’t want to come up with both cuts and revenue? Then the only solution that a school district has, if it has a responsible board, is to protect its educational staff. And if that means activities have to go, great, because I’m sure as heck not going to say let’s boot art, and I’m not going to say we’re going to have 30 kids in a kindergarten,” Mickelson said
He said when talking about solutions, “you have to be open to some new revenue. And it has to be revenue now, because the cost budget crisis is now.”
Trustee Matt Jackman said he supported the intent of the letter to the legislative committee, but he wanted it to be more personal. For example, instead of passionless numbers or dry cost-saving examples, talk about schools without libraries, counseling or athletics.
Trustee John Bettolo said the letter should highlight the state’s unique constitutional emphasis on education.
New Trustee Angela Summers, whose first meeting was Monday, said she used to be a teacher in an overcrowded schoolroom. When there are 35 kids in a class, she said not a whole lot of student learning happens when the instructor is focused on managing the crowd and navigating the tight quarters. Jelaco said it appears some legislators are in favor of these conditions.
Trustee Stephanie Thompson said they already know how it feels to make major cuts to save money, such as when the district closed Lincoln Elementary School.
“We do know what it looks like, and it’s not pretty, and we definitely don’t want to do it again,” she said.
She said the closure tore up the community, and other changes like increased classes make it harder for struggling students to graduate on time, if at all.
Jelaco said more work needed to be done to revise the letter before the committee’s next meeting and to educate the community on the cuts Sweetwater No. 1 has implemented.