School Districts Fight Budget Cuts

Sep 23, 2016

Ed officials listen during a recent education committee meeting in Casper.
Credit Bob Beck

Earlier this year the Wyoming legislature cut $36 million from money they provide to school districts. Since that time districts have been trying to get that money back and convince lawmakers that additional cuts would hurt their ability to adequately teach students.  

Let’s give you a quick history lesson. Many years ago the state lost a lawsuit that changed the way schools are funded. Lawmakers had to develop a school funding model that is designed to give school districts enough money to pay for what is called the basket of goods and services. This includes a list of knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, as well as some graduation requirements. Wyoming’s constitution says education is a fundamental right. Something folks like Campbell County Superintendent Boyd Brown likes to remind lawmakers.

“We’ve gone through the process of deciding what’s in the basket of goods and they have had consultants come in and say what it’s gonna cost for that basket of goods and I think that’s what we are looking to preserve, otherwise we’re gonna have to cut services and they’re gonna have to tell us what services to cut there.”

During a recent meeting of the legislature’s Joint Education Committee, Brown pointed out that in his town jobs are being cut and families are leaving. His district has already seen a loss of roughly 450 students. Loss of enrollment and a decline in the local tax base will hurt his districts bottom line. 

“Looking at where we are at we are thinking that three years down the road we may have a loss of $5 million.” 

Campbell County has reserves and still will have a solid tax base, but Brown said that won’t be the case everywhere. For instance, Meeteetse Superintendent Jay Curtis said smaller districts like his will be more impacted then bigger ones.

“If we actually have to reduce people, we are reducing programs. We do not have more than one person doing any one program. So any reduction means our students get fewer classes, less opportunity. ”

But the fact is, while there is a lot of hand wringing, most districts in the state are either going to get more money than last year or have plenty of reserves to help them overcome this reduction. State Senator Dan Dockstader from Afton.

“I think we’ll be just fine. Even with the cuts I think we will be ok.”

Dockstader points out that during the good times the state had given districts much more then was required. Wyoming still ranks in the top 16 in teacher salaries and Dockstader said in his community they have no problem replacing teachers. He said he believes it’s fair to ask K-12 education to help meet the state’s revenue shortfall.

“The state is running on less money than it ever has before, projections are not good, things have gotta change.”

But Sublette County Representative Albert Sommers warned that they have to be cautious. Sommers notes that the courts have required lawmakers to spend a specific amount on education and if they go below that, there could be problems.

“So we can’t cut much before we’re below the constitutional mandate, so the thought that we can go out and really carve into this thing, we can’t do it or we’re not going to meet the constitutional muster.”

State Superintendent Jillian Balow has a similar warning. 

“I would anticipate that school districts will continue to push back, maybe even in the form of litigation, ultimately that may change the way that we do business.”

It’s worth noting that school districts have been very successful when they’ve sued the state over funding issues. So, Balow says the real challenge for legislators will be in finding a way to pay for education during a fiscal downturn. 

“You know it’s no secret that we are looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in a reduction to school foundation account and that will be felt very deep.”

Oh, and there’s another problem. Legislators are also responsible for the building and upkeep of schools. The coal money that was used to pay for that has gone away. However, House Minority leader Mary Throne said lawmakers shouldn’t overreact. 

“I think we need to do not anything abruptly.”

Throne added that she thinks that the legislature will have the ability to study a variety of revenue options, because enrollment declines and reserve funding will buy them time in the short term. Solutions could range from slightly tweaking the school funding model to raising taxes. But Throne said further education cuts are a bad idea, because education helps economic development.

“If we have bad schools, nobody is going to want to move here and start businesses here. Good schools will make us attractive in spite of our economic downturn.”

This debate will not be ending anytime soon.