Wyo lawmakers have a constitutional duty to fund public schools

Wyoming’s public schools have long been a subject of derision for many Republican state lawmakers who claim they underperform. If such scrutiny leads to the constant improvement of our K-12 system, then I’m all for it.

But that’s not the solution the Legislature is considering. Instead, a committee charged with determining how much the state spends on education wants to cut funding by an estimated $250 million over the next three years.

That’s like complaining of a headache and then “solving” the problem by cutting off your head. If the topic wasn’t so serious, their response would be laughable. Apparently our schools were truly underperforming in their student days — at least in the teaching of logic, reasoning and critical thinking.

Cutting funding at that proposed level would result in the loss of up to 1,000 teaching and staff positions throughout the state’s 48 school districts. Many of those employees will uproot their families and leave the state for work.

“If we wind up taking that many people out of some of our small communities, it’s going to be pretty devastating,” Boyd Brown, superintendent of Laramie County School District No. 1, told the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration last month.

The Wyoming Constitution requires the Legislature to provide a free, complete and uniform system of public instruction. It also mandates the Legislature to adequately fund this system “by taxation or otherwise.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutional mandate to finance a high quality, fair and equitable education for every student. These landmark rulings came in response to lawsuits filed by several school districts that were victims of funding disparities.

If the Legislature approves the cuts under consideration but refuses to add new revenue sources, a new round of lawsuits is virtually guaranteed. Those lawsuits are equally certain to cost the state dearly, even before courts once again side with districts.

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) voted against House Bill 61—School finance recalibration, which would reduce the amount the state allocates to local school districts through its education resource block grant model. It’s a complicated formula, but here’s the bottom line: The bill would reduce funds from the School Foundation Program by $90.5 million in Fiscal Year 2022, and an estimated total of more than $160 million in FY 2023-24.

“To just take a dollar figure and cut from it no longer in my mind goes along with being cost-based, and therefore, what our choice is,” said Connolly, a member of both the select committee and the House Education Committee.

HB 61 is now before the latter panel, which isn’t expected to take it up until March. That gives the public time to remind legislators that passage of the bill without raising revenue would violate Wyoming’s Constitution and devastate school districts.

The bill includes a provision to increase the statewide 4-cent sales tax by a penny for education. If approved, it would annually raise an estimated $164 million.

Not surprisingly, the Wyoming School Boards Association has endorsed the tax hike. But in past sessions the Legislature has resisted all calls to increase the state sales tax, with the Senate most strongly opposed.

Though the school budget reductions and the sales tax increase are both contained in HB 61, the bill could be split into two measures. That creates an untenable situation in which it’s possible for tax-averse lawmakers to pass arbitrary and capricious across-the-board school cuts without any new revenues.

Wyoming has the third-lowest sales tax rate in the nation, and the 10th-lowest residential property tax rate. The state has no personal or corporate income taxes, which are primary contributors to many states’ education funding.

The need for new school revenue is real, and the state can no longer count on the rapidly declining minerals industry for severance tax and royalties revenue. Lawmakers will tap nearly $300 million from the state’s $1.2 billion “rainy day fund” to pay for schools in the current biennium, and more than $540 million for 2023-24.

After that, automatic transfers to schools from the fund will end. A Legislative Service Office memo estimates the state will need to find $649 million from somewhere in the 2025-26 biennium to fund education.

Meanwhile, the school construction deficit is projected at $146 million in 2023-24, a figure that will grow to $314 million for the following biennium.

Wyoming’s schools have already taken a $100-million hit over the past four years. To absorb nearly that amount each year through 2024 would severely curtail school districts’ abilities to deliver the “basket of goods” — equitable instruction in a dozen areas — that the state has determined must be available to all students.

It’s a comprehensive basket: reading language arts, social studies, mathematics, science, fine arts and performing arts, physical education, health and safety, humanities, career/vocational education, foreign cultures and languages, government and civics and computer science.

The select committee asked school districts to detail how both 10% and 16% budget cuts would impact them.

A 10% reduction would result in a loss of 140 positions in Campbell County School District No. 1, which officials described as “devastating to our educational programs.”

“At some point we cut ourselves out of existence,” Carl Manning of Fremont County District No. 25 wrote of that region.

Sweetwater County District No. 1 said the proposed cuts for the 2021-22 school year would total $5.5 million, resulting in the closure of at least three schools.

Albany County School District No. 1 Board Chairwoman Janice Marshall wrote that teachers and support staff — bus drivers, librarians, paraprofessionals, counselors and custodians — would see their positions reduced or eliminated.

“Our class sizes would dramatically increase, decreasing the quality of education our staff could deliver,” Marshall added. “We would have to eliminate various electives at the high school level.” In elementary schools, music, physical education and art courses are likely victims of cuts.

Teton County School District No.1 “would have to cut programming, which means we could not offer the basket of goods or the Hathaway Success Scholarship, Board Chairwoman Betsy Curlin wrote.

The scholarship program was created by the Legislature in 2006 and has given thousands of students the opportunity to attend the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges. That was also the year the Legislature passed the highest increase in school funding in the past two decades, largely as a result of the 2005 recalibration.

“Is our legacy as leaders that we cut education funding and sacrifice our future, or are we going to make the tough decisions necessary to prioritize education and honor the Constitution that clearly places education as a top priority?” Curlin asked.

The Wyoming Legislature must consider what’s at stake, because the state’s future does indeed depend on the quality of its educational system. Lawmakers have long bemoaned the “brain drain” that results as Wyoming’s youth leave to find high-paying jobs in fields that don’t even exist in the state. Wyoming needs an educated workforce to stay here if it’s to attract new businesses and industries to diversify our tax base away from the minerals industry.

What areas of study are lawmakers willing to pull out of the basket of goods to keep the “no-tax-increases” pledge many have made to unaccountable conservative groups? Will they end their considerable investment in the Hathaway Scholarship program? Are they willing to lose hundreds of school personnel who will leave the state for greener pastures? How much are they prepared to pour into expensive but doomed lawsuit defenses?

None of these outcomes are acceptable. The good news is there’s still time for the public to press lawmakers to make good decisions about education, and not wipe out the gains they have made improving K-12 schools. Taking a quarter of a billion dollars out of the system over the next three years with no mechanism to replace it would be an unprecedented dereliction of their duty to Wyoming’s residents.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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