Very few of the meetings I cover end with officials casting votes and crying. But a two-hour session of the Natrona County School Board last week was a nightmare come true for trustees who made the painful decision to close four schools.

It was a tense scene, with parents and students of the schools in question present when the unpopular closure decision was made by an 8-1 vote. I think every single one of the nine trustees would have bolted before the vote if they could have gotten away with it.

“Clearly this is is not what I got on the school board to do,” said an emotional Toni Billings explaining her vote to the crowd.

“I don’t want to do any of this,” said Trustee Dana Howie, telling why she voted against an amendment that would have kept Mills Elementary open. “But I can’t support just one.”

Fellow board member Angela Coleman of Mills, the only one who voted against the proposed closures, unsuccessfully fought back tears. Mills has lost three other schools in recent years and Mills Elementary was the only one left in the community. “We could have found other solutions,” she said.

None of the other options the board had were any better. Board Chairman Kevin Christopherson stressed that at least the school district has made its budget cuts without laying off teachers, administrators or staff. Teachers displaced by the closures will be assigned to other schools, and more than 700 students will have to enroll elsewhere next school year.

“We’ve cut all the low-hanging fruit,” Christopherson added. “Tonight it starts to get painful.”

Sign of the times

What happened in Casper likely will be repeated in other school districts throughout the state as they struggle to cut their budgets. Many are in the same predicament: they built new schools when the minerals industry was booming and severance taxes filled the state’s coffers. But when oil, gas and coal prices and production dropped during the most recent bust, many families packed up and moved to other states, leaving many districts with fewer students and less money from the state to teach those who remained.

Natrona County School District officials said the overall student population this school year is nearly 1,000 students short of capacity. Closing three elementary and one middle school is estimated to save the district about $2.5 million per year. The district will have to make at least $4 million in cuts in each of the next two-year periods.

On Friday the Joint Appropriations Committee met in Casper to hear the latest report from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, state fiscal experts who predict how much revenue Wyoming state government will have available in the future.

CREG Co-chairman Don Richards told the JAC there should be modest revenue growth, mostly due to a modest increase in oil production since the group’s last estimate. “The outlook is somewhat less worse than previously forecast in January,” Richards said.

Richards said the state’s education funding will increase about $62.8 million for the current fiscal year. CREG forecast an estimated $20 million to $30 million annual increase for education spending through 2021.

The state has a current education shortfall of about $250 million a year, making future budget cuts a fact of life, even with the newfound moderate revenue growth. Three factors however are making the already bad situation worse.

The first is the Wyoming Senate’s Republican leadership’s insistence on reducing the amount of state funds doled out to public schools during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session. Lawmakers cut education funding by about $55 million over the past two years and Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said he thinks schools could absorb another $200 million in budget reductions.

That amount would devastate many school districts, including Casper’s.  Hundreds of teachers would be cast out and onto the unemployment rolls. The number of shuttered schools would be difficult to predict. The Wyoming House, which is more rational in this one funding area, will fight large reductions but will inevitably have to compromise with the Senate to balance the state budget.

Second, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration that has been working on possible changes to the state’s school funding model may not propose the savings that many are expecting when they make their recommendations to the Legislature in January. House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) suggested that a revamped model might cost the state even more, particularly because the panel favors adding computer science to the “basket of goods” the state must provide to each student.

Finally, while the Joint Revenue Committee has been busy drafting possible tax increase bills for everything from liquor to lodging and sales taxes, the chance of any new revenue measures passing are slim. As a general rule, Wyoming’s GOP legislators are loathe to even utter the T-word.

Wyoming is one of nine states that currently do not have a state income tax for individuals or corporations. That supposedly makes us “business friendly.” Where then are all those corporations flocking to the Cowboy State?

Implementing a progressive income tax in Wyoming would cost residents who make up to about $40,000 a year nothing. Taxes on the wealthy would increase, letting them finally pay their fair share. When the idea was last considered in 1999 state economists said it could bring in an additional $150 million a year, but that figure would likely be much higher today. However, the mere mention of an income tax incorrectly causes low-to-middle-income Wyomingites to believe the state would rob them of more of their hard-earned money.

Other non-starters to increase the state’s revenues are higher property taxes and severance tax hikes for the energy industry.

It won’t get any easier

The Natrona County School District has even more problems, mostly of its own making. Many parents aren’t happy with the decision to mothball Frontier Middle School, which was built only a few years ago to replace the sinking East Junior High. Unbelievably, the district constructed it at the same location, creating a double whammy. An expensive school was built where it could face the same costly structural problems. Now it will be closed altogether.

While it seemed like a bold concept at the time, the district’s decision to spend $24 million to build a new school called the Pathways Innovation Center has so far been a dud. It gives students the option of spending half of their school time learning job skills like welding, construction and auto mechanics. The PIC can hold 500 students from Casper’s Kelly Walsh and Natrona County high schools in both morning and afternoon sessions, but daily attendance has dropped from 250 in 2016 to 138 this year.

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The board of trustees is making plans to close two other alternative schools next year — the Star-Lane Center and Roosevelt High — because of low enrollment. The district’s decision to end neighborhood elementary schools and allow students to go to the school of their choice no matter where they live has increased school bus costs. That wasn’t previously considered a local problem because the state reimburses the district for all its transportation costs. With the state’s fiscal crisis, though, that practice could end, along with reducing the reimbursement rate for special education.

With myriad current and potential problems, I don’t blame school board trustees in Casper and throughout the state for being overwhelmed at times.

If I had to make decisions like closing schools and firing teachers while knowing even more tough times are coming, I’d be crying too.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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