CHEYENNE – Laramie County School District 1 is not only the state’s largest K-12 district, it has the biggest problem with school capacity overflow.
That was one of the messages to come from the State Construction Department School Facilities Division’s annual report and supplemental budget request. A group of state lawmakers were made aware of the problem across the state during a meeting Thursday of the Legislature’s Select Committee on School Facilities.
LCSD1 is the highest on the current capacity list with an overall district average of 95.6%. More than a third of the schools are over 100% capacity. Other school districts at the top of the current capacity list are in Natrona, Sweetwater, Lincoln, Sheridan and Teton counties.
“From a grandmother’s perspective, Laramie County School District 1 is totally overcrowded. Quite frankly, we’re bursting at the seams,” said Susan Edgerton, a trustee candidate in LCSD1. “We have many elementary schools that need complete tear-downs and rebuilds. Many were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s; their size and functionality no longer meets the needs of our community.”
She was one of the stakeholders who came forward to ask for solutions from the committee, as they considered the fiscal year 2023-24 supplemental budget request by the School Facilities Division. Although she and district officials from Teton County wanted legislators to take action as soon as possible, lawmakers said there is a process to go through and a limited amount of funds.
The School Facilities Commission creates condition, capacity and consolidated schedules that rank school district projects and renovations by priority.
Condition categorizes educational and non-conditional buildings based on an assessment that was last done in 2016, and $4 million was appropriated during the last budget session to complete the new Educational Facilities Condition Index before next summer. They identify facility needs that “impede the delivery of the prescribed statewide educational program” and remedies such as renovations, new buildings and demolitions.
LCSD1 has a significant number of schools built before the 1970s, and 10 out of the 20 schools in the state that are rated the poorest on the Facilities Condition Index are in Laramie County. Clawson, Hobbs, Fairview and Bain elementary schools are among the 10 worst. These scores are already six years old, and that doesn’t account for capacity.
There are eight schools at the top of the high-capacity needs list, which is calculated using projected enrollment and projected capacity. LCSD1 is the highest because Arp Elementary is currently at 154.2% capacity, and at a projected percentage for 2030 of 129.69%. Saddle Ridge Elementary, East High School and Sunrise Elementary School also are in the top of this list.
“They have two classrooms sharing a module. They have a reading specialist that is using a cleaned-out janitor’s closet. They have interventionists using tables set up in the foyer, where the bus drops off children before you technically get into the school building,” Edgerton said of Arp Elementary. “Ask them about their one faculty bathroom, the bathroom that, when it rains or snows, has a drip, drip, drip right over the toilet.”
Condition and capacity are calculated together to create the consolidated schedule that is used to decide which construction projects are funded first. The latest version has not been created because the newest conditions index is not finished. However, LCSD1 has nine out of the 10 buildings at the top of the most recent list. It puts Hobbs, Bain and Arp at the top.
Some legislators criticize the schedule and the formula that creates the list, though.
Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle after the committee meeting that he asked the Legislative Service Office to draft a bill before the next meeting that removes the consolidated schedule from statute, and puts it into the hands of the commission.
“They will hopefully do the heavy lifting and sort out among the 48 districts and among the hundreds of schools that we have which needs the top priority and capacity, and which needs the top priority and facility condition, and then somehow come up with a way to determine in both lists which ones will be forwarded to us,” he said. “What we’re putting into numbers is really more subjective.”
He is concerned the numbers are skewed in the consolidated schedule, because if a new building is at more than 100% capacity, it drops far down on the list.
This is one of the reasons Teton County school officials came before the committee, asking for millions from the state to help fund an education center, interior renovations and a new bus facility. Although their facilities are not deteriorating like other districts, they are at capacity, and their enrollment numbers continue to grow.
“We have already taken measures to deal with capacity in our schools,” Teton County School District 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman and Trustee Janine Bay Teske wrote in a memo to the committee. “We have closed enrollment to out-of-county students, investigated addresses and knocked on doors to verify enrollment, changed elementary attendance boundaries and refused to enroll students who are not truthful about their residences.”
They said these aren’t easy decisions, but these measures are no longer enough. They showed pictures of students packed into hallways eating lunch, and showed the growing numbers of students enrolling. The district has a 100% or higher “cohort survival rate,” meaning that they gain students each year in all grade levels, rather than the typical pattern of declining enrollment. Those students will carry on until they graduate from high school.
Despite this fact, it will likely take years based on the current consolidated schedule before a new building is constructed there. They’ve found other funding sources, such as the mills from the Teton County Recreation District, requesting $16.5 million for the Bronx Achievement Center on the specific purpose tax ballot by agreeing to allow the community to use the facility, and knocked on doors for bake sales, but they still need close to $40 million from the state.
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, were both struck by the stories from LCSD1 and TCSD1. They agreed with other committee members that they must inform the Appropriations Committee of the funding needed, as well as the issues with the schedules.
Rothfuss said it was a challenging frustration that Teton County is prevented from solving its own facility setbacks through statute, but he appreciated they brought forward the best solutions they could find.
“It feels like our select committee needs to communicate and inform our Appropriations colleagues of the issues that we have in two different districts,” Landen said. “Frankly, they are startling and concerning.”
Not every lawmaker and facilities official agreed with the counties asking for solutions to the schedule, or seeking additional funding, however.
School Facilities Commission Chairwoman Holly Dabb said she has heard the arguments from school districts to be pulled out of the formula and “considered special” for six years. She said she struggles with the issue, because the projections for Cheyenne have been slow growth.
“My job on the commission is to ensure all the children in the state have equal education and equal opportunities and equal facilities,” she said. “And we’re constantly being asked by each district to be considered special.”
She criticized LCSD1 because she said they have to take into account the formula, and if they are unhappy with capacity, they need to work on it at a local level. She said the local district needs to take local responsibility, and the voters have to get frustrated enough to vote in new trustees “with new thoughts, who hire new superintendents … they’re stuck with what they’ve got.”
Dabb also said LCSD1 was getting creative in trying to get more funding, such as having the PTOs buy air conditioners for the schools, even though they have one of the largest major maintenance reserves. She said the district didn’t want to put the money in because they wanted to drive down the index score.
“Figures don’t lie, liars lie,” Dabb said. “And they’re trying to manipulate it, so their only remedy is a new school, when they went in over budget on … I don’t even remember which school, probably all of them.”
LCSD1 officials didn’t return calls for comment by press time.
Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, didn’t specifically criticize districts, but said he did want to continue to use the commission’s process. He said that “unless we want to have week-long select school facilities committee meetings, we should continue with our process of letting the commission do their deep dive, do their investigative work and bring their suggestions to us.”
Walters also voiced his concern that if the Legislature meddled too much, it would result in lawmakers from Cheyenne, Casper and Gillette voting in the majority to put funds toward their communities. He said he wanted a well-balanced approach, and not to let individuals “verbally jump to the head of the line.”
He recommended a letter be sent to members of the Joint Appropriations Committee, educating them on the capacity issues and facility needs, but to otherwise leave things as they are. Walters pointed to the fact that they were also responsible for addressing the nearly $31 million the School Facilities Division requested in its supplemental budget to help with bids impacted by inflation, as well as major maintenance.
Next month is the last committee meeting before next year’s legislative session, and the lawmakers will have to make a final decision on its funding recommendations.
“I feel bias a little bit, at least from the chairman of the commission. I don’t know what the rest of the commission feels, but that concerns me,” Pappas said. “I don’t want to trump what they do, either. I think we have a system that needs to work, but we need the checks and balances, as well. I think we have to work hand in hand with them.”
Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.