SHERIDAN — While dozens of residents from across Sheridan, Campbell and Johnson counties asked board members of the Northern Wyoming Community College District to reconsider the decision to cut athletics from the district, the board approved the cut — among others — unanimously Wednesday night as part of the district’s fiscal year 2021 budget.
While nearly all those who stood before the board emphasized the importance of athletics to both Sheridan College and Gillette College, and the schools’ respective communities, board members noted that looming fiscal challenges do not allow such programs to be saved.
Trustee Norleen Healy, who has worked with the college in various capacities for 40 years and has served on the board for 10 years, remarked that this vote is the most difficult she has had to make.
“But now, when hard, hard choices have to be made, I have to choose academics and education over all else,” Healy said. “We are a college and that’s what we have to do.”
Members of the Wyoming Legislature who attended the meeting and spoke during the public hearing pointed to the state’s budget crisis and commended the board’s willingness to make difficult decisions. Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said the state faces a $1.5 billion deficit, a figure echoed by Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, who encouraged the board to focus on the programs that will truly help the state diversify its economy — such as technical programs, nursing and others.
“You’re not doing what you want to do,” Kinskey said. “But you’re doing what you have to do.”
The fiscal emergency developed for a number of reasons, but most elected officials point to a decline in revenues from the energy sector and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kinner pointed out that only one oil rig is currently drilling in the state. If that rig shutters, it will be the first time since 1884 that Wyoming hasn’t had active oil rigs, he said. Kinskey pointed to declines in coal, too, noting that 10 years ago the state shipped 420 million tons of coal annually, but now that number is about 200 million tons.
And as devastating as the cuts made Wednesday may be, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, warned both board members and attendees that this is likely only the beginning.
“I know that this is a really tough decision and this is a deeply emotional subject, and I hate being the bearer of bad news, but it’s going to get a lot worse,” Western said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Western went on to challenge all in attendance to begin thinking about which programs and services in their communities they are willing to pay more for in the future.
“If we don’t want higher taxes, that’s fine, but we’re going to have to start accepting cuts like this,” he said. “Because sadly this is going to be the norm for quite a while.”
At the start of the meeting Wednesday, a contingent of Gillette College supporters consisting of Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell, Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King and Gillette College Foundation Board President Dave Horning, offered a proposal to the board that included funding for the Gillette College athletic programs through the 2020-2021 academic year, a sum totaling more than $500,000. The year of funding, they said, would allow for more time to develop long-term solutions.
No such proposal was presented by the Sheridan College Foundation during Wednesday’s meeting, though community members from Sheridan who spoke Wednesday night expressed hope that the community would step up to support the programs.
Bell, Carter-King and Horning, in their presentation to the board, said by eliminating athletic programs at Gillette College, the school would be “fundamentally altered” and such a change could jeopardize the support of longtime advocates of the school. They also indicated that such a drastic shift could be the impetus behind efforts to separate Gillette College from the district.
NWCCD board members, though, said they couldn’t support a proposal that did not fund programs across the district.
“You want me to be creative and I do too,” Trustee Debra Wendtland said near the end of the meeting before voting on the budget. “But I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of both of our counties. …I cannot support a solution that is only partial for a district and a solution that is not sustainable.”
Throughout the public comment period, board members listened to more than 30 individuals or groups — including alumni, current students and community members — most asking for the board to maintain athletics. More than 100 people were in attendance at the meeting, though they were spread out across multiple rooms as college officials enforced social distancing guidelines. Just one commenter focused on an area other than athletics, expressing concern that the campus police department had been eliminated.
Many in attendance expressed frustration and remarked that they felt “blindsided” by the announcement made last week. They also noted that members of the community who have long supported the college district were not given an opportunity to weigh in or offer solutions.
After public comment, NWCCD President Dr. Walter Tribley walked the board and the audience through the timeline and rationale behind the FY2021 budget. The budget reductions reflect not only cuts mandated at the state level, he said, but also estimated losses in revenue due to an approximately 20% drop in enrollment, an increased health insurance reimbursement shortfall and reductions in other funding sources.
Tribley said the budget adjustment process began in mid-April when the governor announced a need to cut spending and ordered a hiring freeze be put in place. In May, the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group released its projections, showing a $1.5 billion shortfall in years to come if adjustments aren’t made. Then, Tribley said, on June 4 the governor released a plan for three phases of budget adjustments that include up to 20% reductions across state agencies. On June 18, the NWCCD board declared a fiscal emergency, and on June 20, Tribley shared his budget with the board. Staff affected by the cuts were then informed June 25.
The cuts include 10 positions based in Sheridan, five positions based in Gillette and one position serving Sheridan College in Johnson County. Beyond the athletics department, NWCCD board members also approved cuts in the budget that discontinue the Gillette College Energy City Voices; disband the campus police department; eliminate the culinary arts and hospitality management academic programs; eliminate open administrative positions; and reduce travel expenses and sell motor pool vehicles. Cuts total approximately $4 million.
Gov. Mark Gordon, in an emailed response to a request for comment, noted the state has seen one-third of its revenue disappear and could be forced to make cuts totaling up to one-fifth of its general fund budget.
“I think it’s awful, but it’s a reflection of the difficult reality that the state is facing right now,” Gordon said of NWCCD’s fiscal situation. “Every government agency and entity is being forced to make painful decisions at this time.”
Tribley said Wednesday night he must also make plans for an additional $2.3 million in reductions, reflecting the additional 10% cut Gov. Mark Gordon has instructed state-funded operations to prepare. None of the cuts discussed, the district president said, account for the increased cost of doing business during a pandemic.
“This is a very rapid timeline, which is part of why it feels so fast, and I apologize for that,” Tribley said. “We need time as humans for change. There’s no time.”
The district president also said the budget presented to the board is strategic in that it prioritizes academics, fiscal solvency and trying to drive economic vitality in the region. If additional cuts must be made, Tribley said they will be even more painful, as there are fewer non-personnel areas in which to reduce spending.
“Cuts will be at every level of Sheridan and Gillette College and even more personnel, programs and students will be impacted,” Tribley said.