ROCK SPRINGS — Facing a drastic cut in state funding, Sweetwater County School District No. 1 has formed a cost savings task force to investigate options in order to provide recommendations to the board of trustees and superintendent.
As part of the process, the district has provided opportunities for those not serving on the task force to provide input and ideas. Public comments during three sessions of an online public forum on Nov. 10 reiterated the fact that there are no easy answers for a district that has already absorbed a series of large budget cuts since 2015.
At the end of August, Governor Mark Gordon asked all school districts in the state to voluntarily cut 10% of their budgets due to a projected shortfall of $500 million in funding for K-12 education in Wyoming. Then, in late September, the state’s Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration sent a letter requesting feedback on the impact that the deficits and budget cuts would have on school district operations.
In response, Sweetwater No. 1 formed the cost savings task force consisting of 42 members including district teachers and staff, school board members, elected officials, community members and one student. The task force is not a decision-making entity but will provide input to district officials. In addition to cost savings ideas, members were asked to share what they value in education and what they want to see from the district.
The task force first met on Oct. 29. There, members learned that the district is facing an estimated budget deficit of $3 million in the 21-22 school year. Declining student enrollment plays a major role in funding decreases.
A 10% cut as requested by the governor would add up to about $8.1 million for School District No. 1, according to District Chief Financial Officer Scot Duncan. Another problem facing the district is the fact that health insurance is projected to be increasing by 10%.
Task force members received a number of documents concerning the district’s finances and insurance to review and discuss at the first meeting and on Nov. 5. Recordings of the first two meetings are available on the district’s website. In addition, many of the reviewed documents are posted on the district website at sweetwater.org/cost_savings_task_force_2021.
Community members had the opportunity to provide their input on education and cost savings during three online sessions Nov. 10. A wide array of topics were brought up during the sessions, including such things as class sizes, extracurricular activities, the four-day school week, a possible one-cent sales tax for education, software, buildings and maintenance funds, and the possibility of a reduction in force.
During the Nov. 10 public forum, District Human Resources Director Nicole Bolton went over budget cut decisions made by the district in previous years. She said that those cuts were nothing compared to what the district is being asked to do now.
PRIOR BUDGET CUTS
Some of the major budget cuts and cost-savings measures made in the district since the 2015-16 school year include:
— 2015-16: A reduction in force of 75 paraprofessional positions.
— 2016-17: Frozen salaries (steps only) for all staff; nine teaching and five Central Administrative Office positions reduced/absorbed.
— 2017-18: Frozen salaries for all staff continued; Lincoln Elementary closed; early retirement incentives absorbed 25 certified positions; insurance changes; 13.5 instructional coaching positions and 3 classified positions absorbed.
— 2018-19: Frozen salaries for all staff continued; 14.5 certified positions absorbed through attrition; transportation funding cap; special education funding cap; music and science resources revamped and adjusted.
— 2019-20: The district was unable to fill 25 teaching positions at the start of the school year resulting in 15 full-time substitutes hired in lieu of certified positions and 10 positions closed.
— 2020-21: The district had 11.5 certified positions unfilled at the start of the school year resulting in 5.5 long-term substitutes hired in lieu of certified positions and six positions closed. The calendar committee is in the process of planning a four-day school week for 2021-2022. The four-day week was originally brought up during the 2016-17 school year as a cost-savings measure. It was approved by the board last year for additional reasons, including more teacher time in classes.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
District officials said that even though the district is facing significant budget cuts, there are several things they will try to avoid at all costs, including salary decreases, additional reductions in force, and increased class sizes.
One funding option brought up during the forum was a one-cent sales tax for education. It appears there is such a proposal and that it would reportedly be enough to bridge the budget gap expected for the next biennium, Duncan said. He expressed hope that the Wyoming legislature would take a look at that as an option as opposed to making massive cuts in education across the state.
At the early morning session on Nov. 10, Josh Skorcz asked if a breakdown of extracurricular costs is available and whether or not a reduction of extracurricular activities is on the table. District CFO Duncan responded to the question. He said that the district’s budget for extracurricular activities is about $1.6 million per year. He said extracurricular activities will be one of the areas looked at for potential cost savings ideas. The plan is to post a breakdown of those numbers soon on the district website.
Cole Suter submitted a question about technology subscriptions that could be cut that would have little or no impact on student learning. He used Planbook as an example. Stephanie Tolman, chief information officer for the district, said the last time the district did a cost savings task force, $100,000 was cut out of the software budget. She said Planbook is a low-cost product in the budget. Several comments expressed support for Planbook.
The final cost savings task force meeting will be Thursday, Nov. 19. The task force will make a presentation to the school board during a special meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
In addition, a follow-up letter will be sent to the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, and district officials plan to testify before the committee in December. Virtual district-wide staff meetings are scheduled on Dec. 17, and in-person school and department meetings are scheduled for February and March.