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School board votes legal action against state

Bob Beck – Wyoming Public Radio

• Lincoln County School District No. 1 part of the discussion – 

By Cassia Catterall
Gillette News Record
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — On Tuesday, the Campbell County School District joined other school districts across Wyoming and the Wyoming Education Association in support of legal action against the state for what they describe as a failure to “adequately and equitably fund education.”

All five school board trustees present approved a measure for legal action after an executive session that night. Trustees Ken Clouston and Dave Foreman were not at the meeting or present for the vote.

In a prepared statement, Chairwoman Anne Ochs highlighted specific issues related to state funding of facilities and teacher salaries within Campbell County that have resulted in educational harm to students.

She referenced Campbell County High School, which is one of the oldest high school buildings in the state and built in 1971, and the Bus Barn, which was also built in 1971 and is more than 400% over its capacity.

“Coal lease bonus monies from Campbell County have paid for construction around the state, but there is no plan from the state to remedy the situation at Campbell County High School,” she said.

In total, the school district has sent more than $1 billion to the state since 1984 to support other districts and create opportunities for equal education across Wyoming.

Although the district has gone through the proper measures to receive money for the two facilities, Ochs said the state has not followed its own process for the allocation of funds.

Ochs also said the state provides a base salary of $37,000 for teachers at all school districts in Wyoming, a number that she said has not changed in more than 10 years and has not seen cost of living adjustments. To remain competitive, Campbell County has raised its beginning salary for teachers to $49,500 but has to make up the difference from what the state supplies.

“We have had to cut 55 positions over the last five years both certified and non-certified,” she said. “We have tried to make these cuts as far away from classrooms as possible but it has cut opportunities for both students and staff.”

The district hired 100 teachers this year, had 44 district positions left unfilled before school began and now has 58 active teachers who are not licensed but are working toward their certifications. Ochs said the cost of living increases for staff have been either “temporary, ignored or denied by the Legislature.”

“The funding of Wyoming schools is no longer cost based and the Legislature has failed to meet its obligation,” she said.

Ochs referenced Don Dihle, former business manager for the school district, who said that the funding issue the Legislature faces is because it removed money from the school foundation account for things that did not relate to K-12 schools.

The foundation account had about $2 billion before the Legislative session took place this year. At the session, about $1.9 billion from the school account was appropriated into other Legislative accounts and the foundation account balance was capped at $100 million.

According to Dihle, the foundation also did not receive $105 million from federal mineral royalties that instead went to endowed chairs at the University of Wyoming and about $150 million that instead paid for unfunded liabilities in the Wyoming retirement system for all retirees — state, county and city.

Ochs said that according to Dihle, the school foundation would have a $2 billion balance if not for the diversions and there would be no funding crisis.

The state education association filed its suit Aug. 18 in Laramie County District Court, asserting that the state had violated the Wyoming Constitution by failing to fund public schools adequately, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

Since then, Laramie County School District 1, Lincoln County School District 1 and Sweetwater County School Districts 1 and 2 have passed resolutions in support of joining the lawsuit.

In a hearing Nov. 7, the state asked Judge Peter Froelicher to dismiss the case based on a lack of legal standing, since Senior Assistant Attorney General Sean Towles argued the party filing suit must have existing interest.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported that Towles said the state recognized the rights parents, students and the general society have for a properly funded education system, but that the “right to education is simply not held by educators.”

Froelicher said he would take the matter under advisement and his written decision would be made in the next 30 days, or Dec. 7.

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