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Where to cut? School district considers how to trim $379,500

With the State of Wyoming trimming back its funding for K-12 education, the Powell school district is looking at what to cut and what to keep in its budget.

One question is whether the district will approve raises for its employees over the coming year.

“Fortunately for Powell, because of increasing enrollment over the last eight or nine years, we’re immune to some of the hits that other districts are experiencing,” said Kevin Mitchell, superintendent of Park County School District No. 1. “Even though our decrease isn’t as much as theirs, we need to decrease. We need to reduce our expenditures.”

Last week, Mitchell outlined proposals to trim $379,500 from the 2017-18 school year budget.

The largest proposed cut — roughly $150,000 — would come from shortening summer school. Trimming back the pre-kindergarten liaison program would save another $60,000, while not filling a half-time instructional facilitator position at the middle school would amount to $40,000 in savings.

As the district’s administrative team has discussed possible cuts in recent months, Mitchell said his mantra has been to protect — at all costs — what Powell schools do from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the required 175 school days a year.

“We must keep those core education programs — and I’m not talking core curriculum, I’m talking core education programs — in place,” Mitchell told the school board April 11.

The budget cut proposals target things outside of the regular school day, he said. That includes eliminating the community outreach coordinator position, which has been vacant for two years ($20,000 in savings), reorganizing custodial and grounds crew teams ($22,000) and eliminating assistance for the Powell Recreation Summer Program ($15,000).

“We can’t protect everything,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to cut.”

For comparison, last year’s budget was over $26 million, so the proposed $379,500 cut amounts to a roughly 1.4 percent reduction.

Mitchell cautioned that Powell schools may face deeper cuts in the future; he said he’s “a lot more worried” about next year’s budget, saying cuts could reach $1 million.

“Our kindergarten numbers look low again this year, so our growth in student enrollment looks to be trending down a little bit,” Mitchell said. “When that happens — at the same time the Legislature takes anywhere from $30 million to $200 million out of school funding — Powell will be in the same position that Cody, Worland and Riverton are in this year, or maybe a little more.”

The Riverton school district plans to cut 20 jobs in the coming year, while 13 teachers in Cody have chosen to take early retirement, according to The Associated Press.

Cody and other Wyoming school districts also are looking at trimming activity funding, Mitchell said.

“We’re not even considering reducing one assistant coach in this district,” he said. “You’re all going to have to make some tough decisions if we have a $1.5 million cut next year.”

The administrative team has identified more extensive cuts for the 2018-19 year, and Mitchell said he will give that list to incoming superintendent Jay Curtis in July, when he replaces Mitchell in the position.

“Folks, we have it lucky this year with these cuts,” Mitchell said. “Someday, the writing’s going to be different on the wall, unfortunately.”

Increasing employees’ wages?

After outlining possible cuts to the 2017-18 budget, the school board discussed whether to provide salary increases for eligible employees through what are known as “steps” and “lanes.”

If the district was to provide a “step” increase on the salary schedule, certified staff members like teachers can receive an $1,100 annual increase while support staff (such as a para-educators, bus drivers and secretaries) can earn roughly an extra 50 cents per hour.

“Not everybody qualifies for steps, but most people do,” Mitchell said.

Certified staff also can receive a “lane” increase by advancing their education, such as by getting a master’s degree. A lane is also valued at $1,100 per year, but employees must pay for college classes and successfully complete their coursework to qualify for the increase.

Mitchell said he thinks the district should provide lanes, since employees’ requests for those classes were approved more than a year ago.

“If we’re not going to do that, I think we should say that a year ahead, ‘We’re not going to do lanes,’ so if you don’t want to go to summer school, don’t go to summer school,” he said. “But when we didn’t say that … and we have people taking classes all year-round; plus, we are an education institution, and we should be supporting people who go out and get nine credits during the year.”

If the district gives step and lane increases to all employees who qualify, it would cost an estimated $178,000 for certified staff members and $90,000 for support staff, totaling $268,000.

Roughly 10 to 15 employees qualify for lane increases, so it would cost significantly less if the district only did lanes.

School board chairman Greg Borcher said he agreed with the rationale for the lane increases, since it’s based on employees advancing their education, but said he wasn’t sure about steps this year.

“The admin team would have to find an additional $268,000 in cuts to be able to do steps and lanes,” Borcher said Monday. In other words, if those raises are approved, he said the district would need to identify about $568,000 in cuts instead of roughly $300,000.

“That’s the task we sent the admin team to work on,” Borcher said. He asked the district’s administrative team to see if there are other cuts that could be made that wouldn’t affect students.

Several other school board members said they would agree to give lane increases, but not steps.

“But going forward, let them know that the writing is on wall, and [lanes] may not be an option next year,” said school board member Lillian Brazelton.

School board member Don Hansen said he would freeze both steps and lanes. As a business owner, Hansen said he understands the importance of treating staff well and recognizing their loyalty.

“But in this budget year, our hands are somewhat tied,” Hansen said. “I think, freeze them this year, and it gives us a chance to look at this for a year. I’m still hoping the oil and coal industries will come back, and we ain’t going to have these predicaments. But you know, I hope for a lot of things, too.”

School board member Kim Dillivan said he would do both steps and lanes, and opposed freezing the salary schedule. Dillivan also said he’d like to hear what administrators have to say about a possible freeze.

“I’m hesitant to support a freeze that could really hurt morale,” he said.

Support staff cannot receive lane increases — just steps, said Mary Jo Lewis, coordinator of business services.

She noted the Wyoming Retirement System is changing, so employees will have to pay more starting July 1; insurance costs also are increasing.

“That also will reduce employees’ take-home pay,” Lewis said. “If you don’t do steps or lanes, either one, automatically their pay will go down through the insurance increase and Wyoming Retirement System.”

Borcher said it’s a difficult decision.

“It’s hard to say lane changes, and no steps, because then some people got a boost and some people are going backwards, and that’s not fair either,” he said.

Mitchell said historically, the Powell district has been very fortunate.

“When we have increasing enrollment — and we have had — we get more money ... so as we’re giving increases, Cody’s not,” he said. “When your scenario changes, you’ve got to look at that issue as well.”

Generally, the Powell school district is rated about seventh out of the 48 districts in Wyoming for total compensation, Mitchell said. The Powell district ranks about 17th in terms of size.

“Overall, our compensation package is one of the best,” he said.

In her role with human resources for the district, Joyce Ruward said, “I honestly do not think it [an increase] is expected this year.”

“I think the employees know pretty much what’s going on, so it would be an added bonus,” she said.

Ruward noted that with lanes, eligible employees paid for those classes.

“Anything you do, if it is steps and lanes, they’re going to be grateful for it,” she told the board.

The school board will further discuss budget cuts during its Tuesday, April 25 meeting.

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