School Districts Forced To Make Hard Choices About Cuts

Mar 31, 2017

Big Horn High School
Credit Tennessee Watson

Every superintendent will tell you the goal is to keep cuts far away from the classroom and to hang on to as many teachers as possible. During the last legislative session, Wyoming educators asked the legislature to use reserves to cover the deficit, but instead, they stuck them with a $34 million funding reduction. Meanwhile, contracts to teachers are due April 15th, so district school boards are in the midst of figuring out what else in their budgets can go.

It seems each district has their own approach. In Campbell County, Superintendent Boyd Brown said of what could potentially be cut:  “All of it’s on the table.”

He was taking me on a tour of the district, as he started rattling off a long list of possibilities. So I inverted my question. What won’t get cut? As an answer, he took me to the bus loop in front of Twin Spruce Junior High School.

“That’s a huge equity issue for making sure kids are at school and able to get the education that they need.” He was talking about transportation, which is close to eight percent of his budget.

We then get out of his pickup to meet an arriving bus. He wanted to introduce me to Hope and Archie Pierce. The siblings were still unfolding themselves from a 75-minute ride to school.

When I tell them they get the award for the longest ride to school, Archie said, “Well, we live two miles from the Montana border. So it’s pretty far out there.” And his sister, Hope, adds that not only is it far, but, “We live on a hill. And it’s sketchy.”

They get picked up in Suburban that can navigate the rough roads and then transfer to a bus.

Legally schools have to provide transportation. But Brown expressed concern that if cuts continue, the quality of education that kids show up for will begin to deteriorate.  

“We are at the point where, you know, we cut 10 percent two years ago. Cut 10 percent out of our non-salary and benefits last year. We’re looking at cutting again this year. Pretty soon you can’t cut outside of people.” He added, “When you start cutting people you’re cutting services.”

Brown has asked his principals to brainstorm with staff about school level efficiencies. The biggest surprise was hearing that a teacher suggested reducing the number of toilets and urinals as a cost saving measure.

But it’s precisely that kind of creative thinking that’s kept Campbell County’s neighbor Sheridan District 3 afloat. I headed past the coal mines into the Black Hills to Clearmont to meet with Sheridan District 3 Superintendent Charles Auzqui. He told me, “We’re one of the smallest school districts in the state of Wyoming. We currently serve about 100 kids.”

He took me on a tour of the school, pointing out the library, the art room, and the multi-grade level classrooms. And then we go to the cafeteria and multi-purpose room. It’s here that Auzqui showed off his hard work to make his district run more efficiently in the face of impending reductions.

“To be more efficient as we’re talking about, we reduced our custodial staff because we went to machines like these.” He pointed out two devices parked in the corner. They looked like mini-street cleaners, and they allow staff to cruise the school, rapidly vacuuming up dirt and crumbs from snack time. And Auzqui said, reducing custodial staff has kept teachers in the classroom.  

And since it takes a special kind of teacher to thrive at Sheridan 3, once Auzqui finds a match he wants to keep them. He took me into a classroom with flags hanging from the ceiling. There’s only one student currently in the class.

He introduces me to the Spanish teacher, Roy Doke, but he’s actually more than just the Spanish teacher. Auzqui explained, “He is half-time foreign language but he’s also elementary certified. So in the mornings, he helps with the literacy blocks and then he teaches Spanish to the 7-12 students in the afternoon.”

Then we drop by what used to be the nurse’s office, which is now called the first aid station.

“Through some of the budget cuts and stuff we’ve done over time, we reduced the nurse. And now we have Joanie Kiser who does an amazing job.”

She’s sitting at a desk doing paperwork, surrounded by a cot and basic medical supplies. Auzqui said, “She’s an administrative assistant. She’s the first aid station. She does a lot of things. She also delivers lunch to Arvada. So she plays multiple roles.”

All of this juggling is because part of what Sheridan 3 is up against is the cost of doing business in rural Wyoming. Auzqui pointed out that everything from shipping in supplies to hiring contractors to fix things comes at a premium. He said, “We’re out in the middle of nowhere in some beautiful country but the cost of doing business is what we need to be able to tell the recalibration committee.”

He was referring to the group appointed by the legislature to overhaul the school funding model. When they meet starting this spring he wants to see them improve something called the regional cost adjustment, but he’s worried that recalibration might just bring more cuts.

When I get up to leave, I ask Auzqui for his business card. As he fumbles for the box in his desk he told me, “I buy this out of my own pocket. That’s your cost saving measure. You just buy it on your own.”

Which raised an important point about the ways teachers and staff personally absorb reductions.

About teachers absorbing costs, Big Horn School’s Marty Kobza, Sheridan 1’s Superintendent said, “Within the last five years in our district our teachers have received a step in pay one time.” That’s while the cost of living has gone up.

I visited with Kobza at the Big Horn School. He said take home pay has actually decreased. He pointed specifically to the increase in the cost of health insurance while the money allotted in the state budget for benefits reimbursements has stayed the same.

“The one thing that is frustrating to hear is certain legislators as they talk about it, they say education needs to do its fair share; need to take cuts like everybody else.”

His district has already gone down from a staff of 120 in 2008 to 91 this year, and they will be at 88 next year. So what does this look like for teachers at the Big Horn School?

I bumped into Tina Melin in the parking lot. She teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grade math, science, and reading. She also coaches two sports. “For us in the middle school, we lost two teachers last year,” she said.  “And so now not only are there more kids, there is more grading, and there are more parents to meet with.”

And less teachers means fewer hands for the things that keep kids excited about school.

“There’s the behind the scenes things that people don’t always think about. You see just a classroom teacher. But you forget about the concessions. You forget about planning things. And I really believe in hands on things. I like to take the kids out. And we all do. Everybody pitches in, in different ways to make that happen. Whether it’s donating time from their classes, or going with as a chaperone. Or helping out with the fundraising. Everybody pitches in. It’s just one more thing added to everybody’s load.”

Districts are funded to provide content in nine key academic areas. The other stuff that Melin does to contribute to learning seems to fall outside the funding model.

School boards will contend with what matters most as they finalize next year’s budgets. A bigger conversation about how to prioritize education in the state continues with the school funding model recalibration beginning April 3rd.