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School district locked in funding ‘error’ battle

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Mary Stroka, NLJ Reporter

LaCroix: Consistent, reliable means of funding public education is missing

Weston County School District No. 1 and the Wyoming Department of Education administrators are scuffling over nearly $200,000 in funding, and Megan Degenfelder, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, and Weston County School District No. 1 board members will meet in a public session at 6 p.m. on May 6 to discuss budgetary matters, Board Chair Dana Mann-Tavegia said in an email on April 15.

Mann-Tavegia first announced the get together at the April 10 school board meeting, and indicated it will take place in the boardroom of the district’s administration building at 116 Casper Ave. in Newcastle. She explained in the April 15 email that since the whole school board wanted to meet with Degenfelder, she and others handling the scheduling of the meeting could not provide a time for the meeting until after the board’s April 10 meeting.

“It was important to include the entire board, so it did take over a week to get our proposed meeting dates to the WDE,” Mann-Tavegia said in her email.

The meeting was sought after Superintendent Brad LaCroix reported at the March 27 school board meeting that on March 22, the district received notice of “an error in the formula” that resulted in the district losing about $200,000 from the budget that the school board had approved in July 2023. Now, in April 2024, the district is preparing its budget for a new year.

“I just find this as unacceptable, period. I don’t know how in the world we in good faith can take care of those that take care of children when there is not a consistent, reliable means of funding public education,” LaCroix said at the meeting.

He said that while the district will “do its darnedest” to move past the error, these types of “frustrating” errors affect programming and staffing patterns.

“This isn’t a one-and-done,” LaCroix said. “This is $200,000 that you lost this year and even is going to be $200,000 less than what you will earn through your ECA (external cost adjustment) adjustment as we get ready to build another budget.”

Mann-Tavegia said that Degenfelder did not tell the district on time in 2023 what Wyoming legislators had budgeted for the district, so the district had to budget based on previous years’ numbers and past experience.

“Now, almost 10 months later, 10 months out of a fiscal year, the superintendent of public instruction tells us that they made a mistake and that i costs this district. And I don’t think she realizes what $200,000 means to a small school district or a community,” she said at the meeting.

According to Mann-Tavegia, the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) simply takes the money back.

Conflicting accounts

Business manager Angela Holliday said at the March 27 meeting that she spoke with WDE staff, who told her that this is a normal process for the department and the department has until March 31 to correct “the 100 (WDE100 Process), but this was definitely their error” and that they would be willing to explain it to the school board if the board requested that.

“I said, ‘Well, I know I didn’t make the mistake; I’m not worried about that, but what am I supposed to do going forward? And they read statutes to me, saying that it’s a proposed budget, it’s an estimated budget, and it was an unusual year for the number of corrections. We weren’t the only district,” Holliday said.

A spokesperson for the WDE is now pushing back against those claims, however.

Linda Finnerty, the department’s chief communication officer, said in an email on April 13 that the department was notified that the school board was given “incomplete and inaccurate information at a public meeting in March regarding the WDE100 process.”

Finnerty said that every year, the department estimates and continuously verifies, in an iterative process, how much state school foundation funding, if any, each school district is entitled to. The process includes department financial staff, local district business managers, the Legislative Service Office and the outside funding model consultants who created the model, she said.

“As part of the WDE100 process, we sent a letter to Weston No. 1 on March 19, 2024, reiterating that their FY24 school foundation entitlement amount is being reduced by $187,583.99. This was conveyed to the board of trustees at their following March meeting, as we understand it, as the first time the district received notice of this adjustment,” Finnerty said. “However, WDE notified the district central administration of this adjustment back in September of 2023. The payment information was communicated by the WDE on the monthly district payment sheets in September and October. In addition, state entitlement payments were not made to Weston No. 1 during the months of November, December, or January due to a $4.47 million dollar mistake made by the school district on their WDE100 report. Moreover, when necessary data adjustments were reported by the district to WDE to update incorrectly reported transportation reimbursement data, their guarantee decreased by another $122,615.”

According to Finnerty, Degenfelder has personally reached out to LaCroix several times to discuss this issue and has not yet received a response from him.

LaCroix said in a text on April 15 that it’s “news to (him)” that Degenfelder has been attempting to reach him and that he’s currently trying to understand what Finnerty is referring to.

“No call from (Degenfelder) that I can remember, and her assistant called last week on another topic,” LaCroix said.

Funding uncertainty creates fears

LaCroix said at the March 27 meeting that the school funding model hasn’t been followed for years, and there’s a pending lawsuit about that.

LaCroix said in a phone interview with the News Letter Journal on April 15 that against the backdrop of an increase in health care costs for employees, an incoming kindergarten class that is less than half the size it was about 20 years ago, and how public education and the programming and people involved are “under fire,” the error is “very, very frustrating.”

“Last year, we waited — it seemed like forever — for WDE to come out with the numbers, and you’re using those numbers to build a budget. We thought we had built a pretty sound budget and then to find out right before you’re getting ready to do another budget that you have to do this minus, you know, this amount of money,” he said.

As the district administration plans its budget, it’s trying to anticipate how accurate the education department’s numbers are, according to LaCroix.

“Do you have to have a $200,000 state error cushion in there?” LaCroix said.

Without that cushion, he said, people will rightfully get upset because they will ask why the district is retaining funds. According to LaCroix, school districts that are around the size of Weston County School District No. 1 steer toward having about $1 million in carryover funding so they have funding over the summer for their 12-month employees. Simply put, general fund dollars are used for people and programs. Facilities monies come from a different fund.

“You try to keep as many programs as you can for your students knowing that staffing patterns are always more and more challenging, and these kinds of things add to that anxiety,” he said.

He said the district will find it increasingly more difficult to provide the programming that community members want as it becomes more difficult to find funding and staff. For example, when a high school teacher who teaches a specialized program leaves, the program that person taught may come to an end if the funds are not there.

LaCroix said that while he understands that errors occur, he does not understand why the district cannot have two or three years to offset the loss of money and why he did not receive an apology. When he did get a call, he was told to refer to state statute.

“I thought our kids were a little bit more important and our staff was a lot more important than statute,” he said. “Obviously, I was wrong.”

NLJ asked Holliday in an email on April 5 whether she knows what state officials were referring to when they said the school district made a $4.47 million dollar mistake on the WDE100 report and that “when necessary data adjustments were reported by the district to WDE to update incorrectly reported transportation reimbursement data, their guarantee decreased by another $122,615.” Holliday said she is looking into the matter and would let NLJ know as soon as possible.

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