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Wyoming School Board Association Opposes School Consolidation Bill

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming School Board Association has expressed its opposition to a recently proposed bill that would consolidate Wyoming’s school district from 48 to 24.

House Bill 77 is sponsored by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, and co-sponsored by a number of other legislators, including Rep. Chuck Gray and Sen. Lynn Hutchings.

“I think it’s fairly evident the Wyoming School Board Association opposes this bill,” WBSA executive director Brian Farmer told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “One of the things that’s fundamental to us is local control and local governance. Plus, many schools act as the center of their small communities.”

This bill proposes each of Wyoming’s 23 counties should have one school district, along with one district for the Wind River Reservation.

Farmer noted that the state’s last major effort at consolidating school districts occurred in the 1970s and could be described as “tense.”

“I’ve heard stories of fist fights when it came to school consolidation,” he said.

Fremont County has eight school districts and Uinta County, which has three, are considered prime examples of counties with too many school districts in Zwonitzer’s opinion.

On the other hand, Natrona County only has one district and Laramie County has two. The two are the state’s largest counties by population.

“My overall goal is not to impact teacher pay or put 35 kids in a classroom,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily this week. “This won’t be the be-all, end-all solution, but if we could save 10% to 15% of our budget with this, that’s huge.”

Farmer said that consolidation could happen in some counties on a case-by-case basis, but lawmakers and administrators would need to ask how consolidation would benefit the community and where consolidation would be the most beneficial.

Instead of consolidating school districts, Farmer suggested sharing resources as a cost-saving measure.

“For example, a couple districts want to offer the same language program. Then, you could get a teacher to go to different schools in the county and teach that program, instead of hiring a separate teacher for each school,” Farmer said. “The sharing of resources across district boundaries certainly would be worthwhile.”

The Wyoming Education Association did not respond to a request for comment regarding the bill.

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Cheyenne Lawmaker Proposes Reducing Wyoming’s School Districts

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Cheyenne legislator has proposed cutting Wyoming’s school districts in half to save the state money.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer recently introduced House Bill 77, which would cut the amount of Wyoming’s school districts in half, down from 48 to 24 (one per Wyoming county and one for the Wind River Reservation).

“My overall goal is not to impact teacher pay or put 35 kids in a classroom,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “This won’t be the be-all, end-all solution, but if we could save 10% to 15% of our budget with this, that’s huge.”

The bill is co-sponsored by five other representatives and two senators, including Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne. It was received for introduction last week and Zwonitzer expected it to be sent to committee sometime this week.

Zwonitzer said the idea behind the bill was to find a way to cut administration and transportation costs rather than reducing teacher salaries or the classroom experience.

“We might lose some administrators, but my thinking is that schools will be forced to find the same efficiencies that the state government has had to do over the last five years,” the representative said.

He pointed to Fremont County, which has eight school districts, and Uinta County, which has three, as prime examples of counties with too many school districts.

On the other hand, Natrona County only has one district and Laramie County has two. The two are the state’s largest counties by population.

“You shouldn’t have more school districts than you do legislators,” Zwonitzer said. “There’s no reason to have a school district with fewer than 1,000 kids. We’re losing 1% of the population every year, so it doesn’t justify having 48 school districts across the state.”

The Wyoming Education Association did not respond to a request for comment regarding the bill.

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Balow Slams Biden’s Energy Moratorium on Fox

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow on Monday harshly criticized President Joe Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands as a threat to Wyoming’s schools.

Speaking with host Fox News Dana Perino, Balow compared Biden’s actions to restrict oil and gas production to those taken by former President Barack Obama (whose administration Biden served as vice president) during his time in office.

“This is a different kind of lockdown that we’re talking about,” Balow said. “This is a lockdown of an industry that our students in Wyoming really depend on. Day seven of President Biden’s presidency, we would see a near shutdown of the industry that we rely on for public education.”

Oil and natural gas production provide about $740 million in funding for Wyoming’s public schools, Balow said.

Biden issued an executive order last week halting new oil and gas leasing on federal land to allow the Department of Interior to conduct a comprehensive review of the federal leasing program and existing fossil fuel leases.

Balow called the executive order “arbitrary” and said Biden was targeting a few states in the Mountain West that have both a wealth of federal land and resources.

“This is significant,” she said. “What we know in Wyoming is that this could be, by modest estimates, about $150 million a year in lost revenue within just a couple of years.”

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso retweeted the clip of Balow’s appearance on Monday, agreeing that the moratorium would have a significant impact on Wyoming’s schools.

“This morning, WY State Superintendent @jillian4supt discussed on @FoxNews how @POTUS’ energy lockdown is detrimental to WY schools. Revenues from WY oil & gas contribute about $740 million to WY public education. This will have a significant negative impact on kids in our state,” he said.

Other orders signed by Biden in his first days in office included one for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.

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UW, Colleges Launch Collaborative Effort To Improve Wyoming’s Economy

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges are launching a collaborative effort to better prepare Wyoming students for the state’s evolving economy and encourage entrepreneurship, officials announced Monday.

Gov. Mark Gordon, in a news conference with UW President Ed Seidel and presidents from the state’s community colleges, announced the launch of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a joint effort by all the schools to focus more on Wyoming’s economic needs.

“The economic challenges Wyoming is facing are going to require us to develop and deploy innovative solutions,” Gordon said. “It is critical to have this coordinated effort from our state’s institutions of higher education.”

Under the WIN program, community colleges and UW will work to align courses to prepare students for industries that will need skilled workers in the future, such as tourism, advanced manufacturing and digital technology, Gordon said.

He added by working together, the schools will also help students become entrepreneurs and help make Wyoming more attractive to new businesses by making sure they have access to a skilled workforce.

“Our goal is a unified effort that will help launch this economic development as well as strengthen our economy and help our workers succeed here in Wyoming,” Gordon said.

The initiative will also look at ways to increase the availability of higher education to students who might not be otherwise able to access it, perhaps through digital means, he said.

The effort will require the UW and community colleges to develop closer relationships with private industry, Seidel said, both to determine what skills employers need and to seek financial support for the effort.

Seidel and the presidents of the community college have already formed a working group which will meet regularly to determine how to move forward with items such as making educational programs align and making sure community college students have access to the university.

Darren Divine, president of Casper College, pointed out the university and community colleges are already working along those lines, such as with the development of a bachelor’s degree in applied science and the bachelor’s of science in nursing.

In addition, a program announced Monday will allow community college students to know exactly how their college credits will apply should they attend the UW, Divine said.

“The community colleges and the university are very cohesive and aligned more now than ever before,” he said. “This new effort will enhance Wyoming’s ability to meet the challenges created by our current economic environment.”

There will be a cost connected to the effort, Gordon said, but he said his direction to the presidents was to look at what could be done and then perhaps look to sources other than the state for at least part of the funding.

“Then comes the part of how do we raise the funds,” he said. “We’ve got to reach out to the private sector. That’s something that Wyoming is going to have to do more of. We can’t depend entirely on the (legislative” block grant, on what the Legislature does.

“What is important here is a new direction in a way to collaborate among our institutions, to work from the ground up,” he said. “As money comes its direction, as it proves its worth, then more investment will result in more success.”

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Northwest College Considering Changing Name to Yellowstone College

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By Kevin Killough, Powell Tribune

As Northwest College reviewed proposed budget cuts in the coming fiscal year, Trustee John Housel argued the college should include funding that would allow for renaming NWC as Yellowstone College. 

“I don’t think we should stall. I don’t think we should wait for something else to happen,” Housel said. “I don’t think we should wait for another review of some nature to find out how we’re going to do this.” 

He pointed to the public input sessions the college has held over the past year and where a predominant message from the community was the name change was desirable.

And he noted that, at her final NWC board meeting in November, outgoing President Stefani Hicswa encouraged the trustees to move forward with a new name.

At Housel’s request, an ad-hoc committee has been formed to begin examining how to execute the plan.

The committee, he said, could begin researching answers to a number of questions that remain about the rebranding plan. This would include any statutory issues limiting the college’s authority to do so.

Housel also wants the committee to discuss the plan with the Northwest College Foundation to be sure it was on board with the new name. 

“They may not be,” he warned. 

Housel also wants to solicit input from the Wyoming Community College Commission to make sure the college doesn’t run afoul of any criteria the WCCC has governing college name changes and see if the commission has any other objections to the plan. 

“If we knew that early on, that would be helpful,” Housel said. 

The new committee will also do some preliminary analysis on costs of changing signage, designing new logos, and redesigning the website. 

Housel also proposed the committee set a timeline by which the name change could be achieved. 

Dusty Spomer, president of the board of trustees, said a lot of the work would fall to the committee, as the college staff’s time resources were tapped out.

NWC Interim President Lisa Watson said the rebranding is part of the planned institutional transformation. Specifically, it’s part of phase 2, as laid out by the college’s consultants, CampusWorks, which is helping with the overall transformation. 

Watson pointed out that the college, which was previously Northwest Community College, has changed its name before, indicating it’s possible. 

“If we’re ever going to start the work, we need to start the work,” she agreed. 

Housel volunteered to serve on the committee. At the same meeting, Trustee Mark Wurzel was appointed to take over as president of the board, leaving Spomer time to serve alongside Housel on the committee.

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Due to Pandemic-Related Teacher Shortage, UW Students Encouraged To Substitute Teach

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

University of Wyoming education students are being asked to fill in as substitute teachers around the state.

Gov. Mark Gordon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, in a letter sent to students at the UW’s College of Education, asked those who are certified as substitute teachers to act as substitutes during the period between the UW’s fall and spring semesters.

School districts around the state have reported a shortage of substitute teachers due to the coronavirus.

“Our school districts are struggling to staff their schools due to teacher/staff shortages caused by illness and exposure,” the letter said. “Teachers, paraprofessionals and school administrators are all pitching in to cover classes, but the current situation is not sustainable. If you are willing to serve our communities and our students by substitute teaching, please consider doing so.”

The letter also encouraged all of the university’s students with at least 60 hours of college credit in their area of study, the minimum needed to be a substitute teacher, to seek certification from the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board.

According to a news release from Gordon’s office, several hundred College of Education students are certified as substitute teachers.

Those serving as substitute teachers will receive wages paid by local school districts and will be eligible for a service credit from the university.

Leslie Rush, interim dean of the College of Education, said students can also gain practical classroom experience by serving as substitutes.

“Students can fill a critical need in the state while gaining a great deal individually from the experience,” Rush said.

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LCCC Eliminating 30+ Positions, Reorganizing Programs Due To Budget Shortfall

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne is going through a major reorganization and reduction process, eliminating more than 30 positions and eyeing certain programs for changes.

Thirty-three positions will be eliminated by the end of the year at the community college, 9% of its 383-person workforce, LCCC president Dr. Joe Schaffer told Cowboy State Daily. Seventeen of those positions are currently filled.

This comes just four years after the college eliminated 16 positions, again to deal with budget shortfalls.

“I just can’t predict whether or not there will be a rebound in the coal, oil or gas industries, so we have to approach this situation as if it’s permanent and long-term,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer presented a list of recommendations regarding multiple position cuts and structural reorganizations to programs at the college to LCCC’s board of trustees earlier this week.

The president and a number of other LCCC officials have been working on these recommendations since July, as the college is facing a 10% cut from its state appropriations. LCCC needed to make about $3.5 million in cuts, although officials are expecting the college will see a $4.1 million deficit.

In addition to cutting 33 positions, Schaffer recommended other cuts such as closing the LCCC outreach facility in Pine Bluffs, reducing all departments’ operating budgets, reducing athletics expenditures and eliminating short and long-term disability benefits, among others.

Schaffer said that while the coronavirus had an impact to the college’s budget, the cuts were something that had been coming for a while, due to enrollment being down and the community college receiving fewer appropriated funds from Laramie County and the Wyoming Legislature.

The college receives funding from three sources: Laramie County, the Legislature and tuition. Schaffer said he believes tuition rates have already been increasing far too frequently, causing him to worry that community colleges in Wyoming could soon become unaffordable.

“These are painful processes and while I realize them because of a financial corner we’ve been backed into, I hope it becomes a wakeup call, albeit a painful one,” Schaffer said. “This will allow everyone to think about what kind of future we want and look at proactive changes that can be made.”

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Wyoming Dept. Of Education Receives Nearly $100K Microsoft Grant For Computer Science Training

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

In some non-coronavirus related news for Wyoming, the state’s Department of Education announced it received a grant from Microsoft for nearly $100,000.

The WDE received $93,245 in grants from Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative and the Digital Skills for Youth program, which will support computer science teacher training as a part of Boot Up Wyoming, a statewide program launched in 2018 to implement computer science in the state’s K-12 schools.

“Microsoft has been a key partner in Boot Up Wyoming since day one,” said Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “Funds from this Digital Skills for Youth grant keep us on-track to deliver the highest-quality Computer Science education to all Wyoming students.” 

A portion of the grant will enable the WDE’s Boot Up Wyoming initiative to provide a second round of strategic training on how computer science can be implemented in school districts, called Strategic CSforALL Resource and Implementation Planning Tool (SCRIPT) training.

CSforALL is an organization dedicated to making computer science part of every K-12 student’s education. The training provides districts with strategic planning tools to think through what is needed to provide equitable, high-quality computer science education available to all students in their districts. 

In its first year, SCRIPT provided training for 24 school districts working to adopt computer science classes, said Laurel Ballard, the supervisor of the WDE’s student and teacher resources team.

She added with the grant, the WDE will be able to make training available to more districts while continuing the training in the first 24 districts.

“I will take as many (new districts) as want to do it,” she said.

The biggest benefit of the program is that it has allowed school districts to compare notes on their challenges and successes as they implement computer science classes.

“It gives them the chance to come together,” she said. “They come together and learn together.”

The grant will also be used to provide resources for the Wyoming chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), a group of professional computer science teachers that has emerged as a valuable training resource for the state’s teachers, the WDE said.

In addition, the grant will provide the WDE with support for developing high-quality computer science micro-credentials for secondary teachers and students.

“Wyoming was one of the first states to implement computer science education in grades K-12 – now almost every state offers it,” Balow said. “This funding helps us remain pioneers by enabling the WDE to continue to provide professional development to educators focused around Computer Science education.”

Much discussion has been had regarding the computer science implementations over the last couple years. By law, these standards have to be implemented by the 2022-23 school year.

Some districts like Laramie County School District No. 1, Platte County School District No. 2 and Sheridan County School District No. 1 are already working to implement standards, but other schools will need more time to learn them and incorporate them into the curriculum. 

Last year, state Attorney General Bridget Hill addressed the Wyoming State Board of Education to provide some recommendations about how the standards could be better written before their implementation into statewide school mandates.

“There are three types of state standards: content, performance and graduation,” Hill wrote in her recommendation. “The proposed computer science standards use three different labels (priority, supporting and enhanced). The word ‘benchmarks’ can refer to either the discrete items of knowledge that compose the standards or the grade-level or grade-band targets where those items must be taught.” 

In her conclusion, Hill noted that just because these standards will be mandatory for all schools, this doesn’t mean all students will have to learn all of them.

She reiterated that the board should determine graduation requirements to include the computer science standards component and content benchmarks that should be mastered in lower grade levels and only create performance standards for those benchmarks. 

“Wyoming’s vision is that every student has the opportunity to be met where they are — at their skill-level, in their school — and be inspired to learn how technology works and how to build solutions to society’s challenges. We strongly support that vision,” Dennis Ellis, manager of Microsoft’s TechSpark Wyoming, said in a statement on Thursday.

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Eastern Wyoming College Moving To Online Classes Due To COVID Spike

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington is moving to online and hybrid delivery of its classes for the rest of the fall semester due to a spike of student coronavirus cases on campus.

According to an announcement from the college, student exposure risk and the number of students ordered to quarantine have also increased in recent weeks, as has the number of coronavirus cases across the state.

Many of EWC’s classes will now be offered via Zoom.

The Douglas campus of EWC will not be affected by these changes, at least as of right now.

“We are not closing the campus down. We are trying to limit the number of students on campus and in the residence halls for safety reasons,” said EWC Director of College Relations Tami Afdahl. “The safety of our students, our employees and our community is our primary concern.”

On Monday, the college reported that at least three students tested positive for coronavirus. The majority of the students exposed to the confirmed cases live in the college’s residence halls.

Students in hands-on programs such as welding, cosmetology, and others will continue to receive their education through modified in-person delivery of their courses.

Residence hall students in hands-on programs such as welding, cosmetology, barbering, veterinary technology, nursing, CNA, and others will receive priority placement in the residence halls as referenced in the college’s reopening plan.

However, other students in residence halls are being advised to plan to leave the halls by Sunday.

EWC in Torrington will remain open for business with no changes to current operations or employee schedules, however. The EWC Fitness Center will remain open with limited capacity and mask use required.

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Alexis Barney Named Wyoming’s 2021 Teacher Of The Year

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Alexis Barney, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Evansville Elementary School in Natrona County School District #1, was named Wyoming’s 2021 Teacher of the Year Tuesday, during the Wyoming Education Summit.

“Congratulations to Alexis on being named Wyoming’s 2021 Teacher of the Year,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said. “I find that her passion and charisma are contagious – and I’m excited for her to share that with others over the next year.

“Alexis has the heart, mindset, and drive of an excellent teacher. In this role, she will continue to inspire many as she learns to advocate for excellent teaching and learning,” Balow said.

Barney grew up in Saratoga and graduated from the from the University of Wyoming at Casper with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Elementary Education in 2016. 

She graduated from Capella University with a master’s degree in Educational Psychology in 2016.

At Evansville Elementary, Barney is the English Language Arts goal team leader and also serves on the school leadership team. She also is the School Transformation team leader and the Lego Robotics coach and Reading Club coordinator.

Barney said her philosophy is grounded in empowering students to be kind and courageous, and creating life-long learners who are inquisitive and excited about the world around them, finding success no matter their circumstances.

“Our attitude is going to be infectious.” Barney said. “I want to empower people to see things in a different light, helping them to find resources, and really turn those ‘can’ts’ into ‘cans.’ ”

She has frequently presented reading strategies with her co-chair at teaching conferences around the state, as well as in Colorado.

“Alexis is without a doubt one of the finest educators I have worked with in my nearly three decades in education,” Wayne Tuttle, Principal of Evansville Elementary school, said. 

“Students thrive in Alexis’ class because of her high expectations, innovative engagement strategies, and relevant learning. When a principal looks for an educator to be an anchor of their school for decades to come, they are searching for someone of Alexis’ quality,” he said.

The Wyoming Teacher of the Year comes with the significant responsibility of representing the teaching profession in Wyoming. 

The Wyoming Teacher of the Year acts as liaison among the teaching community, Wyoming Legislature, Wyoming Department of Education, districts and communities. 

In addition, the Teacher of the Year is an education ambassador to businesses, parents, service organizations, and media, as well an education leader involved in teacher forums and education reform.

“Wyoming has a strong sense of resilience and grit, as a community and as a whole,” Barney said. “And I think Wyoming teachers demonstrate that so well. I want to represent that grit and resilience and bolster that community. We need everyone involved – and to do that, we have to come together as a community. I think I can bring energy and excitement to our teachers.” 

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