Kindergarten

Marcee George leads her kindergarten students in a sing-along in 2016 at Crest Hill Elementary School in Casper. The Wyoming School Facilities Commission has voted to increase classroom capacity to allow for bigger classes for younger students.

File, Star-Tribune

In a sharp exchange, Sen. Chris Rothfuss criticized the School Facilities Commission’s decision to change the classroom capacity for younger students at a legislative meeting Tuesday, saying the move took the power to drive education policy out of the Legislature’s hands.

“With this new calculation, some districts would have no possible way ... of implementing the student-teacher ratio we’re putting forward in the model,” the Laramie Democrat said. “This short-circuits that.”

In June, at the Select Committee on School Facilities’ previous meeting, Rothfuss said much the same thing: The model — the system that dictates how much money school districts receive for various purposes, like class sizes — should “be driving the ideal classroom and what it looks like.” The commission, which had floated changing the student-teacher ratio for kindergartners through third-graders from 16 to 1 to 25 to 1, was threatening to make the Legislature’s decisions on the model “pointless,” Rothfuss said.

Three days after he and some educators criticized the proposal, the commission decided to approve it anyway. Officials have said the change is to fully utilize available square footage as the state grapples with a shortfall both in its day-to-day education budget and in the money it has to build schools.

The change doesn’t mandate that districts put 25 students in classrooms, but it does allow them to and sets the 25 to 1 ratio as the standard from a facilities standpoint.

Decision criticized

On Tuesday, Rothfuss continued to criticize the capacity change, saying it constituted a change to “an incredibly significant” part of the education system. He was further frustrated by the commission’s decision to do it without any public input. He said that the change should be made by lawmakers, not by a commission in a single meeting.

“How did we decide this as a policy amendment at a meeting when this committee, the education committee, the recalibration committee are spending meeting after meeting on this classroom ratio, and this didn’t even go through the rule-making process?” he asked commission director Del McOmie.

McOmie replied that the Legislature had already repealed the 16 to 1 requirement, which it technically did: In March, lawmakers decided to eliminate that mandate, but the state continued giving districts money so they can have small classes.

The 16 to 1 ratio often isn’t achieved — the average for K-3 is more than 18 students. Still, because they provide money for it, lawmakers still expect small classes, Rothfuss said.

“We removed one sentence that made it a requirement for a district to report that,” he told McOmie. “There was no change to the overall funding model. The funding model still had in place the same ratios and the expectation’s still there.

This change would undermine the Legislature’s model, he continued. It could have a few effects, educators who spoke after the meeting said. For one, school districts — like Laramie County No. 1 — that previously didn’t have the classroom space to meet the 16 to 1 ratio may not ever obtain that space because the commission now says the district has capacity so long as they can fit 25 kindergartners in a room.

“They will never get that because now the school facilities guidelines say now it’s sufficient,” said Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association.

On top of that, Farmer and others said, fewer classrooms may be built in the future because now the acceptable ratio, from a facilities standpoint, is 25 to 1.

Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said it could also have some legislators start talking about increasing class sizes from a model perspective, meaning they could debate cutting the funding schools receive to keep class sizes small.

Staffing implications

After Rothfuss finished questioning McOmie about the change, state school finance expert Matt Willmarth testified before that committee that if lawmakers began funding classes at a 19 to 1 ratio instead of the current 16 to 1, it would mean more than $44 million in cuts, translating to 589 teachers laid off.

If the ratio was funded at 20 to 1, the cut would be $57 million and 745 teachers.

It’s important to note that the commission’s change does not institute any cuts, nor does is directly signal that any may be coming related to class sizes. But Willmarth’s data show the significant impacts classroom size changes can have for a school district.

Last session, at least two bills would’ve increased class size. Both measures died before gaining much momentum, and it’s likely that if any legislative action is taken to change class-size funding, it will come through the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is taking a broad look at the funding model that pays districts to keep a 16 to 1 ratio.

On Tuesday, McOmie and commission chairman Bryan Monteith told the committee that schools would likely continue working to deliver 16 to 1 ratios to students, regardless of what the commission did to maximize space. Monteith said he expected districts to “fight and scratch” to keep teachers employed and classrooms small.

Rothfuss said the commission’s move would make that fight harder.

“What if they don’t have enough space?” he said. “We’ve heard anecdotally from many districts that they’d like to go closer to 16 to 1, but the reason they don’t is they can’t. They don’t have enough classrooms.”

Rothfuss suggested that the commission’s move might’ve been trying to dictate policy. Monteith denied that and said the decision was based purely on maximizing available square footage.

After the heated discussion between Rothfuss and the commission officials, Farmer testified that changing the ratio had broader implications and needed careful consideration.

“What could happen if this new 25 to 1 becomes the new ratio for staffing?” he asked. “That’s a really big discussion and should not be simply a policy decision by a state agency.”

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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