The Wyoming House of Representatives is getting set to debate a bill to cut the number of school districts in half. House Bill 77, which will go before the House Education Committee at a date yet to be determined, would create a commission to forcibly reduce the number of school districts in the state to at most 24 by 2023.
School administrators in Park County disagree wholly with the idea, and each for different reasons. Local school superintendents argue that such a move would be bad for students and likely would not save the state any money.
By some estimates, the move would allow the state to save $8.1 million on the salaries of administrative positions, such as business and human resources managers and superintendents. The Department of Education has declined to give a savings estimate at this point, saying there are still too many variables to make an accurate prediction. If the $8.1 million amount holds, it would be a fraction of the deficit the state is facing. Cody Rep. Sandy Newsome, who sits on the House Education Committee, said each fraction starts to add up.
To Meeteetse superintendent Shane Ogden, it isn’t about the money, it’s about what’s best for students. He said small districts like his can better respond to the needs of its students because of their small size. If Meeteetse were to merge with Cody and Powell, or even districts like Burlington or Basin, they would lose some of that ability.
“We generally fare very well on graduation rates and standardized tests, and we are able to do that because we are a district that is able to meet the needs of our community and our students,” he said. “I don’t know if teachers would have the freedom to choose curriculum – that is approved by our board – that is targeted toward our students.”
There are also questions about how the consolidation would work with those same school boards that approve the curriculum. Consolidating districts generally involves merging school boards, with each merged district getting some representation on the new board.
But there are few mechanisms for removing elected officials from office in Wyoming. If districts were to consolidate, some mechanism to reshuffle the board members before their terms expired would have to be created. There is also no telling if distant or small schools would get enough of a voice on their new board.
“I think that people in those small communities already feel like they have minority representation,” said Cody trustee Stefanie Bell. “On the issue of consolidation, what I think first is governance at the lowest level, closest to the people, is what matters.”
Even beyond that, merging the districts in Park County would hamper the ability of the new superintendent to supervise their schools.
“From a superintendent’s standpoint, just geographically, this would be a monster, an absolute monster to deal with, in terms of these three separate communities,” said Cody superintendent Peg Monteith. “I have trouble getting into the buildings the way it is.”
Powell superintendent Jay Curtis, who helmed the Meeteetse district before moving to Panther country, said consolidating school districts to cut administrative staff isn’t as simple as cutting business managers. Curtis argued that even if districts were to consolidate, most of the jobs in a district like Meeteetse would still be needed. Those that remained on staff would have to be brought up to a higher wage, effectively negating any savings that might be had from cutting administrative positions.
“As soon as you consolidate, all the employees there have to be put on the pay scale of the district they consolidated with,” Curtis said. “We pay more [in Powell] for teachers, principals, custodians, food service. All of those employees [in other districts] would have to be brought up to that standard … You’re really not saving money unless you close buildings.”
Closing the Meeteetse school would mean that some of its 172 students would have to spend as long as three hours traveling to and from their new building each day if they took the bus, or parents would have to drive their children to school each day, something that may not be feasible. If it isn’t, Curtis says they’ll just move on.
“I wouldn’t want my kid having to ride the bus for 30 or 40 miles every day back and forth, so I think people will start making decisions to leave those small towns,” he said. “If you are killing the town, you are absolutely killing Wyoming and what makes us special.”