PINEDALE – Following 90 minutes of emotional and passionate public input, the Sublette County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees voted, 6-1, to table a $1,150,010 budget reduction plan for the 2021-2022 school year.
The action took place at a special meeting on Jan. 28 at the high school auditorium. Trustee Chris Nelson voiced the dissenting vote.
The district’s finance committee drafted the plan in response to House Bill 61, sponsored by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, board chair Jamison Ziegler said.
The bill is part of the state’s wider attempt to trim the next fiscal budget and would require School District No. 1 to cut 6.54 percent of its approximately $17-million annual operating budget, Ziegler explained.
The bill did provide language to establish an unspecified sales tax to fund education, Ziegler added.
The board considered the cuts “arbitrary,” “capricious” and “unconstitutional,” Ziegler stated. He cited the Wyoming Constitution’s provision to fund education before all other agencies and guarantee equitable spending across each district.
House Bill 61 was introduced to the House last month. Ziegler said that if the bill is passed, the district could pursue legal options.
In the meantime, the Board Finance Committee presented the budget reduction plan as a proactive measure in case House Bill 61 passes and to allow public input before the final district budget is approved in July, Ziegler said.
The central question remained whether community members are “willing to tax ourselves” to fund items on the proposed chopping block, including several sports programs and staff and faculty positions, Ziegler added.
Saving faculty positions
The budget reduction plan called for cuts to staff and faculty positions, including one full-time physical education teacher.
Pinedale High School science teacher Luke Myszewski, “speaking on behalf of teachers,” asked the board to consider alternatives to staff cuts. A majority of faculty are willing to make sacrifices, including paying more into retirement plans, to retain staff.
The board’s plan unfairly “penalized” physical education teachers, and if the district lost one position in that department, the student-teacher ratio would “balloon.”
The district offers “amazing benefits,” but Myzsewski stated he would be “absolutely happy to give up those benefits that other districts don’t even offer their own employees to save a teacher who has done nothing wrong.”
“I would ask that our board members, who I truly appreciate, keep an open mind and maybe find someway, somehow, to keep our staff together,” Myszewski said. “Our staff as a whole, as a cohesive unit, makes a difference in our kids’ lives. If one of those employees has to leave our district, I can guarantee you that the education quality of this district will go down as a whole.”
Eliminating sports programs
Dozens of parents, coaches and community members spoke out against the district’s plans to save $90,000 by eliminating alpine ski, indoor track, Nordic skiing, boys’ and girls’ soccer and boys’ swimming.
District spending on activities is “roughly $200,000 over budget annually,” the finance committee’s budget reduction plan stated.
Jason Rife spoke first, stating that skiing, swimming and soccer were sports that athletes can pursue throughout their life, from college club sports to the Senior Olympics.
“Masters racing (in Nordic skiing) is very prominent throughout the United States and locally,” he said. “Adult tackle football leagues, they’re not around as much.”
Lifelong sports that provide opportunities for both boys and girls “should be the first sports funded, not the last,” Rife added.
Jason Ray identified as a Pinedale High School graduate and Nordic ski racer. Skiing is a “legacy sport” in Pinedale that is “steeped in tradition,” he said.
Many Pinedale athletes raced at the college level and internationally, Ray added.
Ray noted that Nordic skiing in Pinedale was inexpensive compared to maintaining the football stadium and track. Nordic equipment can be “handed down” and miles of world-class, groomed ski trails exist in the area free of charge.
Ray argued that cutting skiing, soccer and swimming was “cutting sports for both genders.”
“Football is ... a very expensive sport, the injury rates are very high and it’s for one gender,” Ray added. “There is a sort of bias here on the sports that are getting cut.”
He suggested offering “pay-to-play” sports.
Assistant swim coach Sharon Bien asked the board to delay axing programs until it meets with families, coaches, parents and community members to “creatively come up with a solution.”
High school athletics “provide a positive experience that serves as an extension to the classroom” and “give students an identity,” Bien said.
“If we take away their identity, we are not helping them,” she added. “(Student athletes) are proud of who they are and what they represent.”
Michael Gregory made the point that sports programs had survived budget cuts in the past and “have never been on the block like this.”
Most of the sports up for elimination are individual sports, said Laura Hattan. Individual sports allow participants to “perform at their best” and instilled “staggering dedication time commitment, responsibility, ethics and tenacity” in young people.
Hattan encouraged the community to do whatever it can, including offering sports scholarships, to “spread the love” across all sports.
District English language teacher Lindsay Adam said she was “relieved” the cuts to education and support systems were “minimal.” She raised concern about eliminating sports programs that include at-risk students.
There are students Adam works with that “don’t have a dream of playing on the football team, or the volleyball team, or the basketball team,” she said.
Head Nordic ski coach Holly Thayne said that she has coached “multiple girls’ and boys’ state champions.” The Nordic ski program is one of the “longest active participating teams in the district,” Thayne added. Many Pinedale athletes went on to compete in college and even the Olympics, she added.
“The benefit to lifetime sports is everyone participates, everyone gets out of it what they put into it and there are no bench sitters,” Thayne said. “It builds so much character and confidence into our athletes.”
Glenn Edwards made the point that the board approved the indoor track team last year, and were now considering removing the program without “giving it a chance.”
Darren Hull, executive director at the Sublette County Chamber of Commerce, stated that winter school activities were a “lifeline” for local businesses and cuts would have “wider ranging effects on our business community that is already struggling” as energy revenue declines, he explained.
Former boys’ swim coach Brian Gray asked the board to find “alternative solutions” to save each program.
“As a coach, I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of unique kids in this district, a lot of kids that may not be given a chance in another sport,” he said. “A lot of those kids, to be honest, may not finish high school and certainly wouldn’t have the self-confidence to do what they need to do in life and be a successful adult. It would be a big sin to try to eliminate any program.”
Student-athletes speak up
Many student-athletes courageously stood to the microphones lining both sides of the auditorium to make a case for their programs.
Nordic skiing “opens opportunities,” said Paige Graham, a freshman on the team. “I’ve grown so much these past four months, and I’m finally part of something I love.” Lexie Goodrich, a junior on the Nordic ski team, stated that it “broke my heart” to hear that both ski programs were on the chopping block.
Members of the swim team spoke next. Freshman Andy DeClue stated that the swim team provides a “place where you belong” and is a “second home” for athletes.
Senior John Covill described the four years he spent on the team as a “great experience” with “four years of team building that’s been really great.”
Sophomore Cade Covill said swimming was the only sport for many athletes. The team built a “culture of brotherhood,” he explained, and said that athletes were willing to work to “fund ourselves.”
Senior Declan McAffee argued that swimming causes fewer injuries than sports like football and wrestling. Fellow senior Logan Bing said swimming is a good way to make friends.
“We all have this common sport that we love to do,” Bing added.
Emmaline Vrska, a junior, participated in swimming, soccer and Nordic ski. Soccer “taught me devotion and determination,” she added.
The swim team and soccer teams include participants from Big Piney, Vrska said. Cutting the programs would “be detrimental to Big Piney,” she explained. Playing sports with students from across the county “builds camaraderie between us.”
Athletes in individual sports exhibit a strong work ethic that can lead to college scholarships, said Sierra Hattan, a junior on the girls’ swim team.
“It’s a heartwarming experience to see your team succeed or achieve goals that they never thought they could,” she said. “If you see the athletes out there, doing what they love, seeing the smiles that spread on their faces when we benefit the school with a win, as a team, it’s just simply unforgettable for me.”
Sophomore Ian Cantu, a member of the wrestling team, said sports have a “positive effect” on participants’ mental health. Sports help students “open up” and form “lifetime friendships.”
Sports allow athletes to “discover who they truly are and what they want to become,” Cantu added.