It’s likely that as you read this, the Wyoming Legislature is trying to figure out the best way to handle a $400 million education funding shortfall. Among the possible plans is a recommendation that would have a big effect on high schools (and high school sports) — cutting the number of school districts in Wyoming from 48 to 23, or one district per county.
That proposal puts several high schools in the state at the risk of being closed.
No matter what action the legislature takes, those vulnerable schools won’t close now, and probably not next year.
But soon enough. So far, in Wyoming, district consolidation has always led to school closure.
The district consolidation proposal is part of a much wider education spending reduction discussion, and the Legislature has made no concrete recommendations. The state superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, offered a bunch of alternative ways to save money.
District consolidation, though, remains possible.
While lawmakers and educators say that consolidating districts will not lead to school closures, history shows us otherwise.
Wyoming has been at 48 school districts for a while now, after a wave of district consolidation in the 1950s and 1960s. When the state went through its last wave of district consolidation, numerous schools closed, including 16 high schools in the 18 years from 1954-71. The loss of local control made it much easier for schools to be closed — especially when the consolidated district was not represented by anyone from that community on the board. While that diversion of power wasn’t the only reason those 16 schools didn’t survive district and school consolidation efforts, it sure didn’t help.
The fear of something similar happening soon has taken hold in many small districts today.
For example, look at Sheridan County School District No. 3 for Arvada-Clearmont schools. At 97 students K-12, the district has the lowest enrollment in the state, and it has per-pupil spending among the highest in the state. If the district were to be eliminated and combined with the district in nearby Sheridan, chances are good that no one from Clearmont or Arvada would be on that school board. Especially in a budget crunch, a school like Arvada-Clearmont becomes a target because of its high per-student spending and likely lack of representation.
Class 1A schools at Ten Sleep, Meeteetse, Dubois and Guernsey-Sunrise are in similar positions as the only high school in their district in a county that has multiple districts, as are several larger (and therefore more protected) schools at the 2A, 3A and 4A levels.
If lawmakers go through with the plans to consolidate districts to one per county, several schools would be put in extremely vulnerable positions — most noticeably, the smallest schools and the schools closest to each other. In addition to the likes of Arvada-Clearmont, Ten Sleep, Meeteetse, Dubois and Guernsey-Sunrise, vulnerable high schools include the state’s medium-sized high schools (think 2A and 3A range) that are close to another school but separated by the current district lines. Those schools, which are now in separate districts but would be in the same district under the proposed consolidation plan, include Lyman and Mountain View (six miles apart in Uinta County), Lovell and Rocky Mountain (six miles apart in Big Horn County), Greybull and Basin (eight miles apart in Big Horn County) and Big Horn (nine miles from Sheridan).
Schools already in the same district but that face consolidation at the district level are a bit more insulated; this would include Burns and Pine Bluffs (19 miles apart in the same district in Laramie County) and Encampment and Saratoga (20 miles apart in the same district in Carbon County). Also, smaller schools already joined to a bigger district may have some more insulation from being affected by district consolidation in and of itself. This includes the state’s two smallest high schools in Chugwater and Glendo — schools that have been part of Platte County School District No. 1 with nearby Wheatland for decades.
Other somewhat vulnerable schools that, like Chugwater and Glendo, are close to a much larger school that they already share a district with include a pair of Goshen County schools. Lingle is 10 miles from Torrington, while Southeast is 13 miles from Torrington. Despite the short distances, these schools likely won’t be as affected by district consolidation than others.
The governor and legislators suggested district consolidation would only reduce administrative costs, and in the short term, that’s probably true.
But give it a few years.
The idea that consolidation of districts won’t lead to consolidation of schools seems like an empty promise.
Wyoming has seen eight high schools close since 1980. All of them were part of districts with other, larger, high schools in them. Every high school that’s been in its own district — like Arvada-Clearmont and its cohorts — has survived.
If coal prices are still down, and funding is short, and previously separate districts are now consolidated? The next logical step is to consolidate schools, too.
Minus some significant changes to the school funding model — specifically by changing sources of state income to pay for education — or minus the continued reliance on energy booms to make up for energy busts, district consolidation can’t help but eventually lead to school closures.
And about a dozen of Wyoming’s high schools are really vulnerable to a change like this.
Legislators, and the governor, would do well to keep that in mind this session.