Though still in flux, education budget cuts may not be as severe as feared

Uinta County School District No. 1 Activities Director Bubba O’Neill speaks during a 2016 school board meeting. O’Neill reported during Tuesday’s meeting that 80% of middle school students and 65% of high school students participate in extracurricular activities, which legislators are debating how to fund amid looming budget cuts. (HERALD FILE PHOTO)

EVANSTON — There were a number of issues discussed at the March meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees on Tuesday, March 2, including the happenings in Cheyenne during the legislative session that will impact K-12 school funding statewide.

Superintendent Ryan Thomas said, thus far, the news from the House Education Committee meetings seems to indicate cuts won’t be as drastic as once feared. Thomas said a number of amendments to HB61, the school finance recalibration bill, have been proposed, some of which would incorporate pieces of other bills.

In its initial form, HB61 set out a funding model for K-12 education and then cut $100 million from that model. The most recent version, as of Tuesday, had reduced those cuts to about $22 million and provided more specifics as to where the cuts would be made. Thomas said HB89, co-sponsored by freshman Evanston Rep. Bob Wharff, looks unlikely to pass. That bill would have cut all activity budgets by 50% and would have cut contract days for teacher and administrator salaries. Thomas said, however, some of the administrator salary cuts had been included in specific cuts contained in amendments to HB61.

An additional amendment to HB61 would include a provision authorizing a 1% sales tax increase statewide specifically to fund education. Thomas said indications are such a tax would generate approximately $160 million annually but would not go into effect unless the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), more commonly known as the “rainy day fund,” dipped below $6.5 million. Currently, the LSRA has about $1.5 billion.

Thomas stressed there are several bills that have been proposed that deal with education funding, some of which contain drastic cuts, but he does not believe those are likely to gain traction. For example, HB129, sponsored solely by Rep. Cyrus Western of Sheridan, would cut all funding for activities and all transportation funding for activities, including field trips. Thomas described that bill as “a little scary,” but said he does not think it will pass.

Other bills introduced or proposed include HB81, which would make it impossible for school districts to sue the state over education funding, which Thomas said was “not well received” during education committee meetings and was likely unconstitutional.

Two bills, HB117 and SF67, seek to repeal gun-free zones statewide, including in K-12 public schools, although SF67 specifically references W.S. 21-3-132, the 2017 legislation that allowed school districts to develop policies to allow concealed carry of firearms by staff; SF67 would allow schools to still restrict concealed carry to approved personnel, whereas HB117, co-sponsored by Wharff, would not.

Thomas expressed concern about the repeal of gun-free school zone legislation and said it’s one of the reasons he feels it’s important for the district to pursue Rule CKA, allowing for staff concealed carry so the practice could still be regulated by the district if SF67 were to pass.

With his name attached to multiple bills that could impact school districts, board chair Jami Brackin said Rep. Wharff had taken the time to visit with her and with district administration last week.

“I appreciate the fact he let me yell at him about how stupid his bills were,” said Brackin.

Thomas said, as the legislative budget picture becomes more clear, the district will be able to get more specific about cuts that will need to be made next school year. “We’re still working with a moving target,” he said. However, the district plans to deal with cuts by spending down some of the more than $6 million in reserves, reducing staffing through attrition whenever possible and making reductions to operating budgets.

In other business, trustees heard from Evanston High School Principal Merle Lester regarding two items that are at the forefront of students’ minds — prom and graduation. Although last year’s school closures prevented prom, Lester said the school has gotten approval from public health to begin a planning process for a junior/senior prom to be held on April 24. He said plans are still coming together but it looks like the event will be held in the high school gym, which can hold 400 people under the current gathering restrictions.

Lester said the dance itself would be held in the gym, with other areas throughout the school also being utilized for things like pictures. Due to crowd restrictions, the plan currently being considered is to hold promenade the evening prior on Friday, April 23, with juniors promenading followed by seniors, with limits on how many people each student is allowed to invite to watch.

Lester said plans are also moving forward for graduation, which will be held outside again this year. However, this year’s graduating class is significantly larger than last year’s, with approximately 50 more students, making it impossible to have attendees in vehicles on the football field like the 2020 graduation. Instead, the football field and track area will be marked out into segments for each student’s family and students will draw lots to determine placements. Families will then be able to bring lawn chairs, etc., to their designated spot. “Even if it snows, we’re going to be outside,” said Lester laughingly, noting there is simply no way to hold graduation indoors with the COVID restrictions.

Trustees also heard presentations from the special education and activities departments. Special Education Director Matt Williams reported there are 411 district students actively participating in special education, which is about 15% of the district’s total student population.

Williams also shared some of the successes of the past year, including the number of students participating in district and community projects, community internships and gainful employment with local employers. In addition, Williams gave kudos to special education staff at EHS, Davis Middle School, and North and Uinta Meadows elementary schools for their hard work and to Special Olympian Breyer Faddis, who will be representing Wyoming in the Special Olympics in Russia next winter.

Activities Director Bubba O’Neill reported on the successes and areas for improvement in that department as well. O’Neill particularly emphasized the number of students participating in activities of some sort — 80% of middle school students and 65% of high school students participate in activities. He said those numbers put UCSD No. 1 “right up there” with other Wyoming districts with extremely high levels of participation. As an example, O’Neill referenced the 240 middle school students who will be participating in track this spring.

He also shared some information on gender equity in activities, noting there is 0% variance between the number of activities available for boys and girls. In fact, there are currently more girls than boys participating in activities.

O’Neill and Brackin shared their appreciation for staff, students and the community, all of whom have stepped up to make activities possible, even in the midst of a pandemic. “The people that I work with would do anything for our kids,” said O’Neill.

“This district and this administration and this team has always been committed to ‘let’s get back, let’s get our kids there, let’s do what we can face to face,’ and it’s worked,” said Brackin, “and it’s made a huge difference.” They both also thanked local public health for being willing to work with district staff to make it possible to return to classrooms and return to activities. “We’re now two-thirds of the way through the year,” said O’Neill. “I never believed we’d make it to this day; there were just too many hurdles. But here we are.”

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