In an effort to save money, some state legislators want to cut the number of school districts in the state in half, again.
Consolidation has happened several times throughout the history of Wyoming, but broad consolidation efforts have not been successful since the early 1970s.
House Bill 77 aims to change that. It would turn the 48 districts in the state into 24 or less. Districts could span county lines, while some counties may not have a dedicated district at all. Similar measures have failed repeatedly in the last 20 years.
“I heard about consolidation over and over, even before I thought about running, and they told me it wouldn’t save much,” said Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody). “That was when we had money hand over fist. If we get a whole bunch of ‘not muches,’ that ends up being a lot.”
Newsome, a member of the House Education Committee, said she has always been in favor of consolidation and reducing overhead in education. If HB 77 were to pass, the planning committee wouldn’t necessarily have to combine districts within the same county lines, but could combine districts that are similar in size, like Meeteetse, Basin and Greybull.
“I’m not an advocate of closing schools,” Newsome said. “I think this is one way we can keep more schools open.”
The bill in its current form, sponsored by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), would require districts to select one voter who has not worked for the district to serve on a planning committee to explore what consolidation would like. Those 48 representatives would have to submit a plan to the State Board of Education on what exactly consolidation would look like and how it would be executed by Oct. 1, 2022.
Zwonitzer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If those representatives failed to submit a plan in time, the state board would have to submit a plan of its own to reduce the number of districts to one for each county, plus an additional district on the Wind River Indian Reservation. If approved, the plan in either case would go into effect on July 1, 2023, permanently changing the number of districts in the state.
If consolidation does go through, the Legislative Service Office said it would save the state around $8.1 million, The Sheridan Press reported, though the state education department has declined to give a precise number. The department’s chief policy officer, Kari Eakins, said the bill in its current form has too many variables to be able to determine the full savings.
The amount saved would be a fraction of the cuts the state needs to make to education to balance the budget, as Gov. Mark Gordon said in his supplemental budget message the state faces a more than $300 million budget deficit in the wake of the pandemic.
The bill will go before the House Education Committee but as of Feb. 10, had not been assigned a day to be debated.
Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis), who represents an area that includes many small school districts like Meeteetse, does not support the bill. He called consolidation efforts “concerning,”
“I am afraid that the smaller, existing districts will be pushed aside and the students may suffer,” Winter said. “It’s my observation that these smaller districts have some policies that the larger districts should look at and maybe emulate.”
Some of those policies include an increased focus on vocational training and a recognition that not every student wants or should go to college. Winter also noted Wyomingites would have to adjust to some changes.
“We are all going to have to look at reduced funding for all aspects of our lifestyles, including education,” Winter said. “I am convinced that our citizens are willing and able to do whatever it takes to make the most of what we have.”