Students and staff gather together to catch up in the front lobby

Students and staff gather together to catch up in the front lobby of Buffalo High School on the first day of school. The district is looking to cut 10% from its budget, and one of the options that has been mentioned is to eliminate low-enrollment courses. 

While budget cuts have impacted nearly every aspect of Wyoming government in recent weeks, mandatory cuts have not hit Wyoming schools. Yet.

But with the state’s education budget facing a $500 million shortfall in the next biennium and Gov. Mark Gordon asking school districts to voluntarily cut their budgets by 10%, the leadership of the Johnson County School District is wrestling with the likelihood that its budget could look very different in the coming fiscal year. And while the mandatory cuts haven’t happened yet, they are likely forthcoming, according to board member Jan Johnson.

“It’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “We can’t put our heads in the sand. It’s going to happen, and the governor’s just finished his first round (of cuts), which means two other rounds will happen. We have to … have these discussions because, sooner or later, cuts to education are going to happen.”

During a Johnson County school board work session on Sept. 9, trustees discussed ways that the district could cut 10% — or roughly $2 million — from its budget for the 2021-22 school year if required by the governor’s office. Ideas ran the gamut from cutting staff salaries to condensing athletic programs.

“The state’s given us the magic number of 10%,” Superintendent Jim Wagner said. “But it could fluctuate — it could be higher, it could be lower. We at least have to have the conversation starting now about the initial plans of what that could look like. That way we’re not caught behind the eight ball if and when we have to make those deductions and cuts.”

 

With salaries and benefits making up around 82% of the district’s budget in any given year, most cuts are likely to affect personnel in some way, Wagner said. The cuts could be made by attrition or by cutting existing staff, cutting salaries or offering a staff buyout program.

A full cost of a teacher in the district is $100,000 including salary and benefits, according to Wagner, so a $2 million cut is the equivalent of losing 20 teachers, although savings can be found in other areas as well.

Student activities and athletics could experience major changes in the next year with board members discussing the possibility of both cutting and combining activities and sports. Combining programs would involve offering 7-12 athletics and activities rather than separate programs for middle school and high school students. Board President Dave Belus also suggested a “pay-to-play” model where students would have to pay to participate in a school’s sports or activities.

The district can also consider setting a minimum number of students required in a class, which could remove some low-enrollment classes and alleviate the need for instructors, Wagner said.

None of these choices are easy, Wagner said, but he encouraged the school board to consider what is best for students when making decisions about funding cuts.

“Our focus should always be, what’s going to be the least impactful for students,” Wagner said. “If we can minimize that and keep the impact out of the classroom, that’s what our goal is.”

The district has a $4.37 million reserve fund that it can use to balance out the cuts, Wagner said. But the solution going forward will likely involve both making cuts and tapping reserves.

“We can’t solely use our reserves,” Wagner said. “It’s nice that we have them, but they won’t always be there if we spend them unwisely. We’re just trying to figure out what cuts make the most sense.”

As the board discusses upcoming cuts, Johnson recommended drafting a list of “non-negotiables” — things that the board wants to maintain as priorities amidst the budget cuts.

“These are things that we live on the hill and die by,” Johnson said. “One of the things that’s important to me — and I know it’s important to our younger people — is our class size in the elementary. … That affects kids not just in the elementary but as they go into high school. Those little guys have got to learn how to read. They’ve got to have that foundational knowledge. So the class size in the elementary has got to be on the list.”

Board member Mike Moon recommended involving school administrators in the decision-making process in the coming months.

“Maybe we need to take a page out of business models,” Moon said. “In any kind of a large corporation or business, what you do is task some of your subordinates with cutting 10% of their operations. If you take a look at our schools, everyone has a different set of challenges and a different set of expenses. …We should bring the administrative team in on this and just say, ‘Listen, this isn’t written in stone, but get together with your people and find out where you would carve out 10% of the money we’re spending on your building.’ Just see what they come up with. They might bring ideas that we aren’t even thinking about right now.”

No decisions have been made yet, Wagner said, and the anticipated budget cuts will be an ongoing discussion over the coming months. But one thing is for sure: school funding will change, and the Johnson County School District will likely have to change with it.

“We’ve never had to go through what we’re going through right now,” Wagner said. “We want to use past history, but at the same time, we have nothing to compare to what we’re going through right now. We’re kind of in some new territory, but we have to do our best to formulate a plan for how we move forward.”

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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