Kelly Walsh Construction

Students walk past continued construction surrounding the football practice fields in November at Kelly Walsh High School.

File, Star-Tribune

Lawmakers are considering increasing the amount of money school districts receive to maintain their facilities, a proposal that will add $104 million to a bill the state will struggle to pay in the coming years.

The plan is part of a larger strategy by lawmakers to care for the buildings they’ve paid to construct and renovate over the last 15 years. The move comes in response to an education funding crisis that’s left fewer dollars for construction and daily operations.

The Select Committee on School Facilities met in Casper on Tuesday and discussed a bill that would change the formula for how major maintenance funding is determined. Among other things, the measure would increase the multiplier applied by officials as they use a district’s square footage to calculate how much money each district should receive to keep their buildings upright.

That change would mean the major maintenance budget for the coming two-year budget cycle would be $247.9 million, up from the $143 million that would be set aside under current calculations.

The idea is to spend money and maintain buildings now to slow future construction costs. The bill would also allow new buildings to receive state aid for maintenance immediately; previously, a new facility wouldn’t receive full funding until seven years after it was completed.

State construction officials “told us today that our buildings are set to last us about 36 years,” Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican, said after the meeting. “As opposed to 50 or 75 years. You know what, we kind of want these buildings to last 75 years. And if we’re going to do that, we better get after it.”

Legislators have said for months that the state needs to begin working toward a strategy of preserving the schools its built, rather than constructing more. That’s the impetus behind the facilities committee bill: provide $104 million more to districts so they can make their buildings last to the end of this century. Gov. Matt Mead told the Star-Tribune last month that he thought that was the right strategy going forward.

On its face, it seems a sound strategy to move into a future where, because of the downturn in the coal industry, hundreds of millions of dollars aren’t available to build schools.

But it doesn’t solve the problem with major maintenance funding. By the time the facilities committee’s bill would roll into effect in the coming two-year budget cycle, the money available to pay for it would be a trickle.

This fact was not lost on Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican. He tried to remove the multiplier increase but was voted down by his fellow committee members.

Afterward, he said he stood by his decision but acknowledged that lawmakers had to do something to ensure that buildings would be maintained. Landen said that’s why lawmakers shot down Northrup’s proposal.

“Many of us want to present the true picture,” Landen said. “And we think the (multiplier increase) is the true picture. We have not been spending enough on major maintenance, and going forward, this is what’s it going to take.”

Money drying up

For much of the 21st century, major maintenance and school construction in Wyoming has been funded primarily through coal lease bonuses. Until recently, it’s worked well: Those bonuses have paid for more than $2 billion in construction and maintenance across the state, and more than $3 billion has been paid for those services in total.

But the coal lease bonus money is drying up. The Legislative Service Office says none of that money will be available in the coming two-year budget cycle.

It’s unclear what legislators will do to make up for that shortfall, which will continue to grow as the bonuses shrink. By 2022, the state could be more than $200 million in the hole for maintenance construction.

The facilities committee briefly discussed revenue options late Monday afternoon. Matt Willmarth, an education finance expert with the LSO, explained that diverting federal mineral royalty money could provide a large chunk of the money that would be needed for maintenance. Tapping — or emptying out altogether — a number of education savings account could help fill the hole, as well, though that money is one-time funding.

But as the meeting ended and the legislative budget session in February drew one day closer, the path forward remained unclear. Legislators again said it was important to look at every option, that there was no silver bullet to an education funding crisis that’s hitting every part of Wyoming schools.

Landen and Northrup said much of the funding conversation was being driven by the work being done by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration (upon which both men sit). That group of lawmakers is in the process of reviewing the entirety of Wyomings’ K-12 education system, including maintenance.

And any plan still need the approval of the entire Legislature. Whatever happens in the interim may be moot, depending on what the rest of the 90-person body decides.

“We do all this work during the interim and we still have a big task ahead of us for education in general and for school capital construction specifically,” Landen said. “We’ve got to take it to 80 other legislators and not only explain it but encourage them to support whatever we come up with. Sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we’re not.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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