Superintendent: Budget cuts hurt district and community

EVANSTON — Superintendent Ryan Thomas clearly expressed his frustration with the Wyoming Legislature during the regular meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees on Tuesday, April 10. The meeting focused largely on the district budget for the upcoming 2018-19 school year and the budget cuts and requirements enacted by the legislature. Trustees Kim Bateman and Josh Welling were not in attendance. 

Thomas summed up his thoughts on how the legislative action will impact the district’s budget as: “It looks like we’re getting more money when we’re actually getting less.”

Thomas said the legislature shuffled funding from one area to another in multiple ways to make it look as if the funding increased or stayed the same; however, the end result is a funding decrease.

One of the primary factors behind the decrease in funding is the district’s decreased enrollment, which has continued to trend downward in recent years. Thomas said there have also been changes in how the state is going to calculate ADM, or the average daily membership, to determine funding. 

“Our legislators just look at our per student funding, and that keeps going up,” Thomas said. “Well, that’s what happens with inflation — everything gets more expensive.” 

He said Wyoming still does pretty well in terms of its per pupil spending, but added, “Other states are catching us, and they’re catching us fast.” 

Although the final numbers have not been confirmed by the Wyoming Department of Education, Thomas said they have some pretty good ideas of what the budget numbers will hold and have already taken steps to deal with the reality of less funding. 

In a list of actions the district has already taken, Thomas said they have already instituted a 10-percent cut in operational budgets, with a cumulative 15-percent reduction in the past two years. Similarly, there has been a 10-percent reduction in building budgets with a 15-percent cumulative cut over two years. Additionally, the district print shop will be closing at the end of June. 

In terms of staffing, there have been several positions cut in the last couple of years, all using attrition. For next school year, the district will be down two secondary teachers, one elementary teacher, two instructional facilitators and four support staff, again all through attrition. 

He seemed particularly displeased with the loss of the instructional facilitators, or instructional coaches for staff — due to legislative actions. Thomas said the legislature is ignoring the recommendations of the funding model consultants, who stressed the importance of the facilitators. “The legislature didn’t believe in them, so they whacked it, and they did it in a way so you can’t really see that the funding’s disappeared.” 

In spite of the cuts and staffing losses, Thomas said up to this point the district had been able to make those without losing programs or causing much distress. That may no longer be the case.

“The work we’ve done so far is not pretty and it’s not fun,” he said. “But we’ve cut the fat and now there is going to be some hurting. We’ve cut little bits on all budgets…and we’ve not really hurt anybody or any programs.” 

Thomas continued, “This will potentially start hurting programs. If we can get by this year, we’ll be really fortunate. Next year with the proposed cuts we’re going to really struggle. There’s no place else to cut.” 

Thomas said he is particularly concerned about the budget for the transportation department, since the funding has not increased but fuel costs have, and the district uses approximately 80,000 gallons of gas.

“We may have to look at extras in the transportation we currently provide,” he said. “After-school program transportation is a luxury we may not be able to afford.”

He also emphasized the impact district cuts have on the community as a whole since the district is the community’s largest employer.

“As our funds are tighter and as our staff struggle … the impact to the community is significant,” he said. “What the legislature does to us and how it impacts our ADM (average daily membership) and how it impacts our general fund, it impacts the community tremendously.” 

The interdependent relationship between the district and the community as a whole was also emphasized by athletic director Bubba O’Neill, who provided an update on the activities department. 

O’Neill said he wanted to stress the impact school activities have on the community, including injecting thousands of dollars into local businesses. He specifically emphasized the recent All-State Music festival as an example of hundreds of people coming into the community for a district-sponsored event, as well as an upcoming middle school track event which is expected to bring nearly 1,000 kids into Evanston for the day. 

“I try to get as many events here as possible,” said O’Neill. “Absolutely we’re a community partner. People might not think it sometimes, but we are.” 

He also addressed scheduling and the frustrations for parents, coaches and himself.

“I don’t control other buildings or facilities. I control our district,” he said. He emphasized the need to try to be flexible with changes necessitated by occurrences in other districts. 

O’Neill specifically addressed district needs, including soccer facilities. He said he wanted to address the rumor that he didn’t care about soccer.

“I do care about soccer. The district cares about soccer,” he said. “We have limited venues and it’s not what the rest of the state has. It’s an absolute disadvantage to our kids. … We do want our kids to have as much we can possibly give them. I can’t make land magically appear and I can’t make fields magically appear.” 

Assistant Superintendent Doug Rigby provided an update on curriculum in the secondary schools. He said curriculum reviews have been completed in three of four core areas, with the review of science set to be completed next year. 

Rigby said teachers are now using the same resources, including at both middle schools, and working together to select those resources as part of the district emphasis on guaranteed and viable curriculum.

“They can use whatever they want, as long as they agree on it,” he said. 

One of the issues Rigby said the district needs to address is parental expectations, especially relating to GPA.

“We need to work on the notion that a 4.0 GPA is the be-all, end-all in our schools,” he said. 

Rigby said statistics show Evanston schools have a higher percentage of students with a more than 3.5 GPA than the rest of Wyoming, but standardized test scores are not higher than those in the rest of the state. 

He said this is the result of inflating grades because of parental expectations. “What has happened is parents have called teachers wanting to know what their student can do to bring a grade up. We’ve inflated our grades, and our GPA and test scores are not in line.” 

Rigby referred to the increase in advanced placement (AP) course offerings in recent years. “Parents wanted more AP classes, so we made an effort and got those, but then they want their kids to get A’s in them as well. If your kid gets a B in AP [calculus], it’s OK,” he said. “It’s a hurdle we have to overcome.” 

In one of few actions taken during the night, the board approved a plan to move to electronic fee payment for next year, including registration and activities fees, items like yearbooks, and even student meal accounts. The move will allow parents to pay for multiple students at different schools online instead of writing multiple checks. In order to offset the costs of the new program, a $5 fee will be added to school registration costs.

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