Sublette uneasy about district consolidation bill
WYOMING – A bill aimed at restructuring Wyoming’s school districts, that would reduce the different number of districts in half, was received for introduction by the Wyoming Legislature on Jan. 26
That bill, HB0077, would reduce Wyoming’s unified school districts to no more than 24 within the state – effectively making each county its own district for the majority of the state. Although, specific language in the bill states districts could cross county boundaries and may provide for less than one district per county.
The bill was introduced by State Rep. Dan Zwonitze, R-Laramie, before being co-sponsored by Rep. Landon Brown, R-Laramie, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Natrona, Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Natrona, Rep. Clark Stith, R-Sweetwater, Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Laramie, Sen. Dan Furphy, R-Albany, and Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Laramie.
As of now the bill defined a unified school district as a district supporting at least kindergarten or first grade through grade 12 under the control of one board of trustees and one superintendent that offers an adequate and integrated educational program.
Some educators consider HB0077 as cost reduction during a reconciliation cycle. And local educators inside Sublette County spoke unfavorably towards the premise of mandatory consolidation.
Sublette County School District No. 1 Superintendent Jay Harnack said the bill would be a difficult sell to people in the Sublette community. He cited language in the bill that states one voter from existing districts would be brought onto a committee to recommend how counties would be unified.
Harnack said if his interpretation of that language were correct, only two of the 48-person committee for consolidation would be from Sublette County. That committee would be responsible for school location, utilization of existing buildings, employment of existing personnel, consideration of impacts to student transportation, number of trustees on each board and the schedule for consolidation.
“I find it pretty hard to believe that folks in any given county will want to give up these kinds of decisions to a group that’s 95 percent out of our county,” Harnack said. “Just my take.”
Kevin Garvey, superintendent of Sublette County School District No. 9, acknowledged that the legislature is in a difficult position this year but he said it’s his belief the state cannot “cut our way out of our economic challenges.”
He said that he couldn’t speak for the district’s board of trustees but he would oppose any legislation that mandates consolidation. As of February, Garvey said he wasn’t aware of any interest in pursuing consolidation as an option in Sublette County.
“I cannot speculate on what it might look like in this county,” Garvey said. “I believe it is being proposed as a cost-cutting measure but I am doubtful of the remedy it would provide. Consolidation is a local option whether or not this bill passes and I would always prefer a local decision.”
The Wyoming School Boards Association announced its opposition to the bill last week.
All of the representatives or senators who co-sponsored the bill come from some of the largest school districts in the state. Laramie 1 holds the state’s largest enrollment with 13,840 while Natrona 1 touts 12,754 students, according to 2021-21 fall enrollment numbers provided by the Wyoming Department of Education. Sweetwater 1 has the fourth-largest enrollment (5,141) and Albany 1 has the fifth-largest enrollment (3,885).
It’s worth noting Campbell County, home of the state’s third-largest school district, already consolidates its schools into one district. That encompasses the various elementary, middle and high schools in Gillette, as well as the smaller community of Wright. No delegation member representing Campbell County co-sponsored HB0077.
Wyoming experienced a seventh consecutive year of improved graduation rates in the 2019-20 academic year, the Department of Education recently announced.
Both Sublette school districts finished in the top 10 statewide.
On Feb. 4, HB0077 was referred to the Education Committee.