Schools

Second-grade teacher Holly Gilbert works on a project with her students at Willard Elementary School in Casper. State educators are cautiously optimistic about a funding review that has the potential to overhaul education funding in Wyoming.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Superintendents for two school districts that passed resolutions authorizing lawsuits against the state say they’re optimistic about a funding review that could reshape education finance in Wyoming.

“I was pleased with where they were at,” Campbell County School District’s Boyd Brown said Friday of the Augenblick, Palaich & Associates consultants hired to undertake the review. The firm presented its review plan to lawmakers and the public at a legislative meeting Tuesday in Casper.

The consultants plan to examine the state’s current funding model, as well as three alternatives and the educational standards that must be provided to each student. The consultants will hold group and one-on-one meetings with education leaders like Brown and will also hold four regional meetings to get input from educators and community members.

Brown, Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent in Sweetwater County School District No. 2, and Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, all praised the plan Friday. They were particularly pleased with the consultants’ desire for community input and the decision to review the basket of goods, as the standards are known.

“In general, I think it might be OK,” Little-Kaumo said. “I read their studies from Alaska and Maryland and it seems like they’re pretty balanced. ... I don’t have a problem with them right now.”

It’s notable praise: Brown and Little-Kaumo have been critical of cuts made by lawmakers in the past, and both voiced concern that the funding system review — known as recalibration — will be used to slash funds as legislators work to find a way to fill a looming education deficit that could hit $530 million in the coming years.

That’s not what recalibration is intended for, they and others have maintained. Both Campbell and Sweetwater No. 2 have passed resolutions allowing their school boards to sue the state should cuts become too severe.

The exact process that recalibration must follow is concrete and established by state Supreme Court decisions: Consultants must decide what’s needed to provide an adequate education for all Wyoming students, and then they must determine how much it costs to provide that schooling. Rep. Albert Sommers, the chairman of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, reminded the consultants of that two-step process at the meeting Tuesday.

Brown said Friday that Sommers’ comment and the consultants’ desire to follow the correct path assuaged concerns he had about the process.

“The consultants “seem like they’re well equipped to do what they’re working on,” Brown continued. “The only question I have is do they have enough time?”

Recalibration is about three months behind schedule, he added. That’s likely because this isn’t a typical recalibration year: The examination usually takes place every five years and last took place in 2015, but the deficit forced lawmakers to initiate the review early.

Since May, the select committee has held three meetings — one to draft a request for proposals from consultants, one to study potential tax increases with another key legislative committee, and one — held on July 25 — to publicly meet with the firm and hear its strategy.

After the July 25 meeting, Little-Kaumo was cautious in her praise. She said the level of input the consultants are seeking from both educators and the general public is unusual. The consultants will hold four public meetings across the state — in Cody, Cheyenne, Rock Springs and Buffalo — in August, and Little-Kaumo said she’s going to recruit as many parents and educators as possible to attend the Rock Springs meeting.

“Our parents and our kids are our largest stakeholders,” she said. “And they’ve got to have a voice.”

She was pleased that the consultants would take a deep dive into the current system while also looking at alternatives. She believes that review will show that Wyoming’s 48 school districts are efficient with their funds, which in turn will demonstrate to lawmakers “what the reality is”: that money is tight, but districts are running as smoothly as they can.

Neither Brown nor Little-Kaumo could predict whether the consultants would select an entirely new model or stick with the system that Wyoming’s used since 2005. But both praised the current method — known evidence-based model — and said it fit Wyoming.

They’re not alone: In 2015, during the last recalibration, lawmakers rejected a change proposed by the old consultants and kept the current model.

A change to a new system wouldn’t necessarily herald a lawsuit, and officials from districts who’ve passed resolutions allowing litigation — including Campbell County, Sweetwater County Nos. 1 and 2, Albany County No. 1, and Laramie County No. 1 — have said a courtroom is the last place they want to be.

Brown and Little-Kaumo said they remained optimistic that a lawsuit could be avoided, but neither would close the door completely.

“You know, we’re sitting ready to go,” Little-Kaumo said. “We’re going to wait and see what happens. If (the process is) not in favor of what we need, I’m sure we’ll be moving ahead.”

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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