The Natrona County School District board of trustees on Wednesday approved a $293 million budget for the fiscal year that began last week, but the board's treasurer couched his report with caution.

The budget will enable the district to increase contributions to employee retirement savings, and maintain and expand its facilities, Ray Catellier said.

"And we are ensuring that we are providing a truly free and public education by eliminating classroom fees, providing school supplies, and eliminating day charges for athletics and activities," Catellier said.

That said, the district will never be able to rest easy as it pays for the education of nearly 13,000 students with the work of about 3,000 faculty, staff, administrators and other employees.

The district has struggled, sometimes painfully, for years to cope with the economic downturn, and that has affected how the Legislature allocates funding to the school districts throughout the state.

"There's no certainty for the future of our budget," Catellier said. "There are still the structural deficits that remain at the state level."

The board, with little comment, unanimously approved the budget. Three of the nine trustees were absent.

After the meeting, Catellier said about $200 million will go for operations and most of that is for payroll. The other $93 million is for reserves and projects such as the renovation of Park Elementary School near downtown, he added.

These amounts have been consistent recently in part because of the austerity measures the district implemented over the past four or five years, he said.

"We're lucky in that Natrona's made cuts preemptively, trying to get ahead of the state Legislature, and so this year we've kind of realized some of those cuts and be a bit ahead of the curve to start paying for school supplies," Catellier said.

He repeated his concern about the statewide economic picture.

"You hear everything across the board," Catellier said. "It's tough to know, based on just the rumblings ... you hear everything from all the good to all the bad."

Much of the state's revenue comes from the coal industry, and the recent shut-down of the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Campbell County are worrisome not only with direct severance tax revenues, but property taxes as well, he said.

"The impacts are going to be felt just from the Natrona County community just being so close to Campbell County will feel it, but then at the state level from the funding they get from the coal taxes and things like that, we're definitely going to feel it," he said.

"Hopefully, they can get their situation worked out," Catellier said. "It doesn't look good right now."

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