RANCHESTER — The Sheridan County School District 1 board of trustees discussed next year’s budget during a work session Thursday. The board did not take any official action but talked in-depth about finances for several hours.
The board has to accept a preliminary budget by May 15 and implement an official budget by mid-July. Next year’s overall budget will be a hair under $15 million, about the same as this year.
SCSD1 business director Jeremy Smith said the district has spent about $9.3 million of its approximate $15 million budget this year, roughly 61 percent. At the same time last year, it had spent about 64 percent of its budget.
“We’re in a very good place for this year,” Smith said.
Special education and enrollment funding concerns
Smith went over the effects of the recently approved House Bill 140, which funds K-12 education for the next two years. The most concerning part is a special education cap that limits special education reimbursement funding for school districts in 2019-20 and 2020-21 to not exceed reimbursements for 2018-19. If costs exceed those of 2018-19, school districts have to pay from their general education fund, taking dollars away from other education areas.
“This is a hot mess,” Smith said.
The bill includes a $2 million statewide special education emergency fund, but Smith said the amount is far too low and it is unclear how the distribution of funds would actually work.
“Is this a lawsuit waiting to happen?” board chairman Gary Reynolds asked.
“Yes,” Smith responded.
Board clerk Penny Barkan asked if lawsuits would come from school districts suing the state or parents suing school districts. SCSD1 superintendent Marty Kobza said both would likely occur.
“That’s not very comforting,” Barkan said.
HB 140 also affects enrollment funding going forward. Previously, enrollment was calculated by school building, but now it will be on a district-wide basis, which results in funding cuts for every school district in the state.
Smith projected an overall enrollment next year of 975 to 980 students and said the district is funded for about 940 students next year. If enrollment was still calculated by building, SCSD1 would have received funding for about 957 students.
The enrollment changes will result in about $355,000 in cuts to SCSD1 over the next three years.
“It’s painful,” Smith said.
Employee salary and benefits conversation
The board discussed how to respond to House Bill 109, which mandates a 2 percent increase — from 16.62 percent to 18.62 percent — from an employee’s eligible wages over the next four years for employers and employees participating in the state retirement pension program.
SCSD1 has traditionally paid both employer and employee shares, one of the few districts in the state to do so. The district has one of the lowest base teacher salaries — about $41,000 — in the state but has usually attracted employees with a good retirement and wellness benefits package.
That appears to be changing. Kobza said when he recruited teachers at colleges several years ago, Wyoming base salaries were consistently $7,000 to $8,000 higher than surrounding states. Now they are about the same, which could lead to a gradual decrease in teacher quality.
Kobza added that about 200 new teachers graduate from the University of Wyoming every year. School districts around the state have to replace about 600 teachers per year, which means bringing in about 400 out-of-state teachers each year. If base salaries in Wyoming aren’t as competitive, that becomes more difficult.
SCSD1 employees may want a higher base salary and fewer benefits in the future. If employees choose to pay 50 percent of the pension contribution, the base salary would go up to $44,000. To figure out what employees are thinking on the topic, the board will meet with an interest-based negotiation representative group in late April and early May.
The board also discussed questions to ask three superintendent applicants during separate interviews April 2, 4 and 11. Kobza resigned to move to Nebraska and be closer to family. His final day is June 30, 2018. In addition to board interviews, there are also community forums April 2, 4 and 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Big Horn High School and 7 p.m. at Tongue River High School.
The district will employ 90 full-time teachers next year, the same as this year. However, Kobza said significant shifting of teachers will occur, mainly because Tongue River Middle School will have around 140 students, while Big Horn Middle School will have about 85.
Smith said the district’s online course offerings through its new Cowboy State Virtual Academy have the potential to positively impact bottom line, which has been flat for the past eight years.
Smith wanted to set aside a bit of money for the new superintendent to use. The board tentatively decided on $27,500.
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for April 10 at 6 p.m. in Ranchester.