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Committee advances K-12 education recalibration bill with $100M cut to funding model

◆ Education funding shortfall predicted to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

By Tom Coulter
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE – State lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday [December 22] to renew the funding model for Wyoming’s K-12 education system but included both a $100 million cut and a provision that could eventually lead to an increase to the state’s sales and use tax.

The Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, made up of several high-profile lawmakers, held a two-day meeting [last] week as part of the recalibration process, which the Legislature goes through every five years to review what constitutes an equitable education system in the state.

During meetings earlier this year, legislators heard from hired consultants, who provided a rundown of recommendations for an effective, cost-based funding model for the state’s schools.

Although the process happens every five years, the 2020 recalibration bears special significance, with Wyoming projected to face a revenue shortfall for its K-12 schools totaling hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years. In an effort to begin addressing that shortfall, lawmakers agreed to advance a recalibration bill that would include $100 million in cuts to be divvied up among the state’s 48 school districts.

“This bill is a vehicle for the Legislature to have a discussion about what is an appropriate and adequate education in the state of Wyoming – and how we fund that moving forward,” committee co-chair Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said. “Is it perfect? No, it’s not, but that is kind of the compromise of where we’re at.”

Sommers’ proposal, which was brought at the start of the committee’s meeting Monday afternoon, would keep in place the existing legislative model used to fund the state’s K-12 schools, which lawmakers have repeatedly opted for over consultants’ evidence-based models in recent years.

If approved by the Legislature during its general session next year, the $100 million cut would essentially translate to a roughly 6.5% reduction in overall K-12 funding.

Throughout the two-day meeting, legislators heard from educators across the state, essentially all of whom discussed the potential effects of implementing the across-the-board cuts.

For Laramie County School District 1, the state’s largest school district, the proposal, combined with previously approved reductions, would translate to a roughly $18 million cut.

“We’re probably not going to be able to keep $18 million worth of cuts from not going into our personnel,” LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown told the committee. “(The situation) is beginning to cause us to eke that into the classroom, where we feel like some students are not getting what they need.”

Brown estimated the $100 million figure translates to funding for roughly 1,000 teaching staff members across Wyoming, and he bristled at the thought of what could happen if those jobs were eliminated.

“If we wind up taking that many people out of some of our small communities, it’s going to be pretty devastating,” Brown said.

Other educators who spoke to the committee emphasized any drop in funding would not only make it difficult to retain current teachers, but also to maintain adequately low student-to-teacher ratios.

Officials from Sweetwater County School District 1, which would see a roughly $5.5 million cut to its budget for the 2021-22 school year through the proposal, said the cut would require the closure of at least three schools in the district.

“When we close schools, the kids need to go and be relocated, and that would cause an increase in our classroom size,” SCSD1 Superintendent Kelly McGovern said Tuesday, adding it could result in as many as 35 students in a single classroom.

McGovern also noted the increasing difficulty of recruiting prospective teachers from nearby states, some of which have become more competitive with their teaching salaries in recent years.

“What’s happened for us is those neighboring states have raised the base salaries of their teaching positions, and what those people are choosing to do is to remain home,” McGovern said, pointing to Utah as an example. “When their salaries are very comparable, we don’t have the draw anymore to bring those candidates here into Wyoming and keep those.”

With the state mulling tens of millions of dollars in educational cuts, several who testified noted the importance of the other side of the budget equation: revenue.

Tate Mullen, government affairs director for the Wyoming Education Association, said the funding proposal would be “far more palatable” if legislators had already advanced significant revenue-raising measures to backfill the cuts.

“The goal of $100 million in cuts is ultimately arbitrary and capricious,” Mullen said. “We are quickly moving away from the fundamental purpose of recalibration.

“We understand the need for this bill to move forward,” he added. “We would also strongly advocate, though, for the prioritization of passing additional revenue-generating measures.”

Although legislative committees have advanced few revenue options throughout the year, the recalibration proposal advanced by the committee Tuesday includes the possibility of an increased statewide sales and use tax. The bill, however, does not include a specific amount by which the tax rate would go up to fund Wyoming’s schools, and any tax hike included in the recalibration bill would still need to gain the full approval of the Legislature.

While there has been little appetite for tax hikes in the Legislature in recent years, the educational community in Wyoming appears to be warming to some proposals. Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, noted his members approved increasing the statewide sales tax from 4% to 5% during a recent meeting.

Debates over such a proposal could occur during the Legislature’s general session, which is likely to occur sometime this spring.

After two days of discussion, lawmakers advanced the recalibration bill by an 8-3 vote. Before wrapping up the meeting, committee co-chair Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, emphasized the meeting Monday and Tuesday was just “the first of many” discussions that will take place over funding for K-12 education.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll make headway in getting to a solution this session,” Kinskey said. “Likely as not, we’ll be talking about this for several years to come.”

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