Local and state education officials are sounding the alarm about a Senate proposal that — they say — would cut $150 million from Wyoming’s schools over the next three years.
As the Legislature passes its halfway point, the House and the Senate remain divided on how to handle the education funding crisis. In the House, lawmakers are pushing a proposal with more than $30 million in cuts over the next three years while also looking to the find new revenue sources for Wyoming schools. Down the hall, in the Senate, legislators are backing a bill that will roll in as much as $150 million in cuts.
Both bills are holding while their respective sponsors consider amendments.
In Natrona County, the House bill would have little effect on educators’ current plan for handling reductions. The school district is operating off of a budget plan of cutting roughly $4 million a year for the next two years as it absorbs budgetary blows already delivered from the Legislature.
Under the Senate bill, however, the district would take at least an $18 million hit over three years, on top of the cuts the district is already rolling out.
“Scary,” Superintendent Steve Hopkins said Monday evening. “Big. It would be very — we’ve talked about this a lot the last few years. I think that would be very difficult to pull off, even in our proactive environment, while avoiding significant impact to students. Really ramping up class sizes, laying off employees, dramatic cuts in budgets.”
It could also mean closing schools. With more students in classes and less teachers in the district, Natrona County could look at shuttering more buildings. The school board has voted to close five schools due to budget woes in the past 13 months.
If shuttering buildings was ever a palatable choice for trustees, it doesn’t appear to be any longer. During a budget meeting Monday afternoon, as Hopkins explained the impacts of the Senate’s bill, one trustee muttered to another: “I’m not closing another school.”
It’s not just the Senate’s bill that is making educators nervous. The Senate has effectively folded the bill’s language into its version of the budget, meaning that the cuts now exist in its own piece of legislation and in a massive budget document.
“They did that because with a bill they can just kill it,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “But with a budget, they have to talk about it.”
That means both the Senate and the House will pass their own version of the budget and then come together to negotiate their differences. Folding the contents of the Senate’s education bill into the budget means it cannot be swept away with negotiations with the other side.
It’s a remarkably similar situation to where the chambers stood at this point last year. The House had an omnibus bill that tapped savings, rolled in cuts and proposed conditional tax increases, among other changes. The Senate, meanwhile, looked at a bill that focused solely on cuts. Senators also put an amendment into their budget that would trigger $91 million in school cuts, a move that was widely seen as a way to force the House to negotiate.
Both bills passed their respective chambers and headed across the hall. The Senate heavily amended the House bill, and the House ignored the Senate bill altogether. Lawmakers from each chamber eventually met and, at literally the 11th hour, approved a version of the House’s bill. The budget amendment was significantly watered down and essentially had no effect.
Educators suspect that’s where this year’s session is headed. Brian Farmer, the Wyoming School Board Association, said the Senate’s moves were a way to bring the House to the table.
“The House is talking about, ‘This is what we believe is best,’” Farmer said. “The Senate is saying, ‘This will get us into best negotiations.’ That’s a little frustrating from the outside, to tell you the truth. ... I would rather be talking about what is it we truly want rather than playing this legislative game of staking out a position so we can negotiate to some place in the middle.”
Farmer and Vetter both said they preferred the House bill, officially titled HB 140. The legislation does not increase class sizes, tinker with health insurance or salaries. The largest cut in the bill comes from a provision that would tighten up how enrollment — which essentially determines districts’ funding — is calculated.
The bill would also divert a number of revenue sources to fund education and school construction, while making it easier for districts to count students in their enrollment tallies.
“What we like about (the House bill) is it looks forward, about how we fund education into the future,” Vetter said. “It actually has revenue streams to fund education behind this biennium. The Senate side is just looking for ways to cut.”
That bill, dubbed Senate File 117, would increase class sizes to varying degrees for grades four through 12, hikes which would slowly increase over the coming years. It would also tighten up how enrollment is calculated in a somewhat more restrictive way than the House’s bill, and it would similarly tighten how much money districts would be given for health insurance.
It would also spread $10 million across the state’s districts 48 next year and $5 million in the year after that to help offset some of the blows.
A message left for the bill’s sponsor, Cowley Republican Sen. Ray Peterson, was not returned by press time Tuesday.
Legislative staffers estimated that parts of the bill would cut $114.8 million over the coming three fiscal years. But the impacts of six pieces of the bill — notably the insurance provision, among several others — are unknown. Educators say the additions bring the total cuts to $150 million, at least.
“So we think that those range somewhere between 35, 45 or more million dollars per year,” Farmer said. “Probably in that range – again it depends on how do you count it?”