District starts over, again, with gun policy

Uinta County School District No. 1 Superintendent Ryan Thomas speaks to school board trustees about drastic cuts to the upcoming budget during a Feb. 2 meeting in Evanston. (SCREENGRAB/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Looming budget cuts were again a primary topic of discussion at the Feb. 2 regular meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees. Though the situation may change as introduced bills move through the legislative session, the district is currently preparing to make significant cuts for the 2021-22 school year based on what is known about the funding legislation as it currently exists.

Superintendent Ryan Thomas explained that, currently, the district is preparing for an approximately 8% budget cut, or approximately $3.3 million, for next school year. That amount would include both a 6.5% cut —  about $2.6 million — based on the state funding model and an additional 1.74% cut based on declining enrollment.

Thomas said he and district CFO John Williams have been poring over numbers to determine where cuts could potentially be made. The goal is to make those cuts without resorting to a reduction in force (RIF) and to only cut positions through attrition. He described three tiers of cuts — surface cuts, those that “draw blood,” and those that cut to the bone. Thomas said he and Williams believe they can make surface cuts and maintain staffing, class sizes and more with minimal change — even with the drastic cuts —  at least partially thanks to a healthy carryover reserve account.

By law, districts are limited in how much money can be kept in reserves to 15% of an annual operating budget. For the past several years, UCSD No. 1 has maintained about 13% in a reserve account, or approximately $6 million. Thomas explained that if the budget is cut by approximately $3.3 million, that will decrease what can legally be kept in reserves and require the district spend some of what is currently in that emergency reserve account.

If the cuts do, in fact, come to the currently anticipated $3.3 million, the district could utilize anywhere from approximately $435,000 to about $2.2 million of that reserve account and keep the account between 10-13% of the total budget. The availability of such a healthy reserve account could significantly soften the blow of budget cuts for next school year. However, Thomas warned similar cuts are also anticipated in coming years and the reserve account simply can’t continue to fill the gaps.

Thomas and school board chair Jami Brackin expressed frustration with the proposed cuts, particularly in light of a Wyoming constitutional requirement to fund a free and appropriate public education. To accomplish that task, Wyoming uses a recalibration system to periodically examine the “basket of goods” that school districts are to include in public education and then determine what it would cost. That recalibration process took place in 2020. The legislative recalibration committee established a cost-based model and approved it, and then proceeded to cut $100 million from the approved amount.

That $100 million cut statewide is what would result in the 6.5% cut for UCSD No. 1. However, some legislation introduced so far this session would increase that cut by another $50 million statewide.

House Bill 89, co-sponsored by Sens. McKeown and Steinmetz and Reps. Hallinan, Bear, Fortner, Jennings, Laursen, Neiman, Ottman and newly-elected Evanston Rep. Bob Wharff of Evanston, would make significant cuts to salaries and to activity budgets.

Specifically, HB89 would cut all administrator salaries by 10% and would cut the number of contract days for teaching staff from 185 to 180. Thomas explained that would mean teachers would lose five days of pay. Daily pay for teachers within the district ranges from $250-350 depending on experience and length of time with the district.

In addition, HB89 would cut the funding amount for all activities, including athletics, music, theater and more, in half, without exception.

Thomas described HB89 as “offensive in that it goes in and changes the funding formula from what the recalibration committee came up with.” He said the loss of five days of pay for educators would be “horrifying” and said it’s “really scary” for a small group of legislators to decide they can go in and tinker with the recalibration model as they see fit.

Brackin also expressed her displeasure with the continued cuts of public K-12 education.

“Our legislators need to know that they are constitutionally required to fund education,” she said. “The fact that they are doing this just makes me insane because first and foremost they have to fund education. Then they can play with the money all they want, but the fact that they are coming after education with this kind of cut for these small districts that cannot maintain it is asinine and it needs to stop.”

Thomas and Brackin both encouraged residents to be vocal with legislators about the cuts and what the impacts would be for students and staff in the district.

Of note, Thomas and Brackin both mentioned past litigation that has taken place in the state regarding the funding of public education, through which the Wyoming Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled the legislature must appropriately fund education in an equitable manner and the likelihood cuts of this magnitude will result in further litigation. Another bill introduced in this legislative session would curtail the ability of districts to sue over funding.

House Bill 81 would utilize $5 million from the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), better known as the “rainy day fund” to create an account to be used by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office to defend against any litigation, while also preventing school districts from “directly or indirectly” expending “any funds that are intended for public instruction for legal fees or other expenses related to an action maintained by the district or any other person against the state … that challenges or questions the constitutionality of the state’s public school finance system.”

Both HB81 and HB89 have been introduced and referred to the legislature’s education committee.

In other business, the UCSD No. 1 Board again approved a Notice of Intent to Adopt Rule CKA, a concealed carry policy. The district has adopted such a policy on two other occasions and amended a policy on another occasion, yet all of those have been struck down by both district courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court. Now that the rule has again been declared null and void, the district has decided to restart the rulemaking process to again adopt such a policy.

Evanston resident and attorney Tim Beppler, one of those who has repeatedly sued the district over the policy, submitted a letter that was read by Thomas at the Feb. 2 meeting, requesting the district rethink its position or create a committee of diverse stakeholders to consider such a policy. However, board members said they believe they’ve already created such a committee in the past and did not believe it necessary to do so again.

Trustee Jenny Welling said the district has created a good policy that would be in place if not for “frivolous lawsuits.” Brackin said they are aware a rule may be challenged in court again, but they intend to move forward, while trustee David Peterson said he believes the vast majority of the community is in favor of the rule.

With the approval of the Notice of Intent, a 45-day comment period has begun. Comments will be accepted until March 30 and can be submitted in writing to 537 10th Street, [email protected] or via an online survey at the district website at uinta1.com. There will also be a public hearing at 6 p.m. on March 30 for those who would like to submit oral comments. The proposed rule and accompanying documentation is available for public inspection on the district website.

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