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Natrona County School District Prepares For Budget Cuts; Watches Legislature

Tom Morton, Townsquare Media.
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media.

The Natrona County School District is preparing for the upcoming fiscal year as the Legislature is looking at three major bills about education statewide for years.

Superintendent Steve Hopkins gave the district’s board of trustees an overview of both during its work session Monday.

The district has been preparing for the impending cuts for more than a year because it knew what was coming with the economic downturn and loss of state revenues.

For the near future, the district recently ended is open enrollment process for 2017-2018, and that will have an as yet unknown impact on schools, staff and students, Hopkins said.

A first look projects a reduction of about 100 students district-wide compared to now: high school enrollment will be up about 100, middle school enrollment will be flat, and elementary school enrollment will be down about 200.

“We have the numbers, we haven’t begun to analyze them,” Hopkins said. “We have to analyze in terms of what schools, the impact on individual classrooms”

“The board’s number one priority is to avoid layoffs in dealing with reductions in funding education,” he said. “So we would look to try to save positions through retirements or resignations.”

The other aspect of the district’s future is up to the Legislature, Hopkins said. “I’ve heard lots of legislators who want to help K through 12 districts by having the reductions be phased in over time so we have the ability to absorb them.”

Legislators also want to give the school districts, particularly boards of trustees, maximum control over state funding, he added.

But cuts are imminent, with one bill cutting $80 million from K-12 education, he said.

For the Natrona County School District, that would mean a reduction of about $10 million over the next three years. What that means for the 2017-2018 fiscal year remains to be seen, he said.

Hopkins told the trustees that two major education bills started in the Senate and one started in the House.

The three bills have been sent to the other houses for further work, he said.

One Senate file — Senate File No. 1 — deals with the overall budget including education.

One aspect of SF 1 would revise the budget crafted in the 2016 Legislature’s budget session. This file calls for reductions — recommended by Gov. Matt Mead and the Joint Appropriations Committee — by $91.5 million.

If funding measures don’t cover for that amount, SF 1 directs the Superintendent of Public Instruction to reduce funding to all districts proportionately to achieve the $91.5 million reduction. For example, if the Legislature passed a $50 million reduction, the Superintendent of Public Instruction would reduce all school districts by $41.5 million, Hopkins said.

The other Senate file, SF 165, proposes about $60 million, if not more, in reductions over three years:

  • The Legislature apportions money to the school districts based on their enrollment in a formula called an Average Daily Membership. Currently, a full-time student is one who is enrolled in 50 percent or more classes. SF 165 would raise that to 80 percent, meaning schools would count fewer students and consequently receive less funding.
  • It would change health insurance policies, but the Natrona County School District’s insurance program would not be affected.
  • It would impose a moratorium on the purchase or lease of new school buses unless it’s an emergency.
  • It would reimburse districts for special education based on the 2015-2016 education budget.
  • Instructional facilitators — those who help teachers and staff with professional development — would be reduced by 25 percent, and then another 25 percent in another two years.
  • Nonpersonnel components — instructional materials, activities, utilities, maintenance and so forth — would be cut by about $22 million.
  • The state reworks, or recalibrates, funding on a five-year cycle. SF 165 would start that process two years early.
  • Transportation would be reduced to the level in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

In the House, HB 236 takes a balanced approach, Hopkins said.

It incorporates five options to deal with the deficit: reductions, use of state savings, new revenues, redirecting existing revenue streams from some state programs to education, and adjusting spending policies for revenues from sources such as the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.

One new revenue possibility would be the addition of a half-cent to the state’s 4 percent sales tax. That increase would go into effect and remain in place until the traditional sources of school revenues to rise to their previous levels. However, the drafters of HB 236 have not determined when it would actually be needed, Hopkins said.

HB 236 has many of the proposed cuts in SF 165, he added.

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