The Natrona County School District faces a loss of $17 million from proposed cuts by the Legislature and a projected reduction in the number of students in the 2021-2022 school year.

It's going to hurt.

"We're preparing for it," District Superintendent Mike Jennings said during the district's work session on Monday.

The state is looking at a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars from the collapse of energy prices and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Jennings outlined the process for crafting a budget by May 15 and budget hearings and adoption on July 9. The district's fiscal year begins July 1.

The Legislature's actions will greatly affect the budget, he said.

Two committees -- the Select Committee on School Finance and the School Finance Recalibration Committee -- met in December and worked on two bills, Jennings said.

The first was a $100 million block grant fund cut to education statewide. It passed through the committee and will become a House bill, Jennings said.

The district has approximately 13% of the students in the state, which translates into a $13 million loss, he said.

The Legislature formally convenes Tuesday for one day, but will meet at an as yet undetermined time later this year.

In the unlikely event the Legislature does nothing about the $100 million cut, the district is still looking at a loss of $4 million a year over three years because of a projected decline in enrollment. The Legislature allocates funding based on "average daily membership" or ADM, and Jennings said the district is anticipating a decline of 700 students in the 2021-2022 academic year.

The other bill would have capped reimbursements to districts for special education and transportation, but it did not make it out of committee, he said.

If the proposed $100 million cut passes, the district is looking at a total loss of $17 million to $18 million, Jennings said.

If the severe cuts come, Jennings hoped they wouldn't be quick and abrupt, he said.

The district went down a similar, though not nearly as drastic, road five years ago when energy prices fell.

It cut 130 positions, eliminated departments an programs, cut division programs by up to 25%, and closed one middle school and four elementary schools.

The effort then, as now, is to keep funding cuts away from the basic job of teaching and support.

Eighty percent of the district's revenues are spent on personnel, Jennings said. "We're in the business of educating students."

The district wants to maintain that goal

So a committee has identified about $1.5 million in possible cuts.

The district has a special education tuition program for students outside the district with a budget of $2.5 million. The recommended cut would be $700,000.

Other programs looking at cuts include the program to transition students from rehabilitation facilities back into schools, professional development; the school resource officer program that partially pays for police in the schools; and the Boys and Girls Club financial literacy program.

The largest program that could be eliminated would be the $283,000 We Read program -- a partnership with the community including the Natrona County Public Library  that provides one book a month for kindergarten through third grade students.

The $10,000 allocation to the Youth Empowerment Council, which deals with bullying and suicide prevention, also may be slated for elimination.

Trustee Debbie McCullar said the district was proactive and did its best five years ago, and seems to be about to take an unfair hit.

"We're at the point that its going to affect our programs and it's going to affect our kids," McCullar said.

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