Senate Chambers

Senators work in the Wyoming Senate chambers Jan. 11 at the Wyoming Legislature in Cheyenne. Education consultants presented a school funding proposal to lawmakers on Thursday. 

File, Star-Tribune

Some Wyoming class sizes would increase while teacher salaries would remain largely the same under a school funding proposal presented to lawmakers Thursday.

The proposal — created by education consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates — was a first look at what Wyoming could have as a new funding model come the spring. Lawmakers, together with the consultants, have been working since the spring on recalibration, a process through which the state examines its educational program and how it pays for it.

The consultants did not provide a cost-estimate for their recommendations. They’ll collect feedback on the proposals before submitting another draft by Dec. 15 and a final report by Jan. 12. The Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which oversees the process and the consultants, will meet for the final time in late January, a few weeks before the legislative session begins.

Because it’s essentially a draft of a draft, the report presented Thursday may change by the time it’s considered by the committee. Still, it provided an idea of the types of changes Wyoming’s education system could be facing.

Recalibration typically occurs every five years, but lawmakers called the broad review to be moved up from 2020 to this year as the state tries to grapple with its education funding shortfall.

What was presented showed the fruits of that review. The consultants’ recommendations would increase the overall student-to-teacher ratio from 15-to-1 to 17 to 1. The most significant jump would be in fourth and fifth grade, which would have 23 students per class compared to the 16 that the current model calls for.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, acknowledged that many districts don’t meet the classroom size ratio that the state expects. But some do, he said, like his own Albany County School District.

The districts that stayed closer to the model would be somewhat punished by this move, he said: They would see their classroom sizes go up while their salaries would stay the same. Bigger classes would mean too many teachers.

He suggested the 23-student classroom ratio recommendation came from conversations with educators around the state, rather than a research-supported proposition.

“I’m a little concerned that that isn’t in-depth enough,” Rothfuss told the consultants. “It’s not enough of a justification. ... I think that would probably eliminate 10 percent of our teachers at that staffing ratio.”

Indeed, in a vacuum, those class size increases would suggest a significant funding cut to schools. But the consultants’ draft also includes a recommendation for keeping teachers’ salaries as they are actually paid, which is typically more than what the state expects.

Districts receive their funding in a block grant that largely gives them latitude to spend money as they see fit. The districts generally pay their teachers more than what is called for in the model in order to keep teachers in Wyoming. As a tradeoff, they usually employ fewer teachers and have slightly larger class sizes than the state expects.

The consultants would end that tradeoff. The proposal would give districts more money for salaries, to match what teachers are actually being paid. The districts would also be given less money for class sizes, to match how large the classes actually are.

“It’s not that people are way overpaying salaries,” Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent of Sweetwater County School District No. 2, told lawmakers. “Because $42,000 as a business manager or $38,000 for a teacher is not going to cut it in Green River, I’ll tell you that.”

Comparing models

To arrive at their recommendations, the consultants studied the current model — known as the legislative model — and compared it to other potential models. One, known as the professional judgment approach, convenes panels of educators and experts, who then make recommendations for resources to deliver a quality education. The second, called successful schools, studies the best schools in the state, determines how they’re spending their resources and then applies that standard statewide.

A combination of the three analyses led to the consultants’ recommendations, they said.

“We did look at the places that are doing well and what their actual class sizes were, and they were in line with what the range is there,” consultant Amanda Brown told Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican.

In addition to salaries and class size proposals, the draft recommendation would increase funding for instructional facilitators — which the Legislature slashed last winter; provide funding for nurses; change how attendance — a key driver of funding — is calculated to make it more uniform; provide health insurance as it is now; provide half-day preschool programs for all 4-year-olds; continue funding special education similarly with some more oversight; encourage more state oversight to cut back on transportation costs; and more.

Cost unknown

What’s missing in the proposal is cost.

“Do you know if that’s going to be a wash?” Kinskey asked Brown, meaning if the salary changes would be offset by the class size increases. Brown replied that information would be available when the salary analysis was completed.

Though Rothfuss was concerned by the classroom size changes, he said in an interview after the meeting that he thought many of the recommendations were “pretty good” and that he guessed the recommendation was roughly equal to the cost of the current model.

Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent of Sweetwater County School District No. 2, said she had no idea what the proposal would cost the state. She said some of the draft was OK, but she said that the analysis from the meetings — which showed that Wyoming spends similarly to its neighbors — indicated that its current funding model was both cost-effective and relatively efficient.

The cost is important: While recalibration cannot legally be used as a vehicle for education cuts, it’s hard to extricate the process from reductions. Normally, the process takes place every five years. Last completed in 2015, it was called early this year as the state grapples with a large education funding shortfall.

Educators and some legislators have warned that calling recalibration early as an implicit way to slash schools’ budgets is a gamble. Legally, the consultants and lawmakers must first determine what constitutes an adequate and equitable education and then, with that determination in hand, decide how much money is needed to provide that schooling.

Thus there’s a chance recalibration could result in a more expensive model. Of course, consultants could recommend a cheaper one as well, but the point is that whatever the price tag, it must be pegged to the educational outcome first and foremost.

Regardless of what the consultants settle on in their final report, it’s far from certain that lawmakers will accept their recommendations. In 2015, for instance, the recalibration committee decided to set aside an updated funding model in favor of the one it had had for years. There’s a chance — albeit one that is nearly impossible to predict — that could happen again.

Little-Kaumo said she didn’t think lawmakers would ultimately support a bill to overhaul the funding model. She predicted — as other superintendents have — that schools would simply face more cuts from different legislation.

Given the action of another interim committee, she’s likely correct. The Joint Education Committee approved a bill last month to cut about $16 million from schools through a variety of relatively small moves, though that legislation is still a ways from becoming law.

Rothfuss said he had no idea if the committee would recommend overhauling the current funding model. Speaker Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican, said he thought they would.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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