As the Wyoming legislative session draws near, its arguably most pressing issue remains suspended in the air.For the second straight year, the 90-person Legislature will work to solve an education funding deficit. But this year is different: Not only is it a budget session that will likely last just 20 business days, but the body will also have new information to consider as it ponders how to cut costs, maintain quality education and keep the state out of court.
The new data comes from a process known as recalibration, a top-down review of the state’s education system. The study was scheduled to take place in 2020, but the Legislature decided to trigger it early due to the funding situation. The study looked at everything from the state’s educational offerings to the dollars spent to fund those programs.
For educators and some lawmakers, the best-case scenario of recalibration was that it would prove that Wyoming spends an appropriate amount on schools. Others hoped it would reveal excesses within the system that could be cut or at least explain why the state spends more than $17,000 per student.
In the end, only the first group walked away pleased. Recalibration is finished, and its participants left relatively empty-handed. While legislators have said the information provided by the consultants who conducted the study have given them ideas for the future, the legislators unanimously voted against passing along the proposed funding model.
For those lawmakers who were hoping to find cuts, recalibration was a dead end. For those who hoped it would prove Wyoming’s schools are properly funded, it appeared to be vindication.
In any case, the results have far-reaching implications. The day after the recalibration committee decided to stick with its current model, the Joint Revenue Committee swiftly killed four tax-related proposals and narrowly voted down a fifth. Chairman Michael Madden, a Buffalo Republican, said that recalibration “imploding on itself” played a significant role in killing any appetite he had for raising taxes.
The possibility of finding new revenue is probably the most controversial, if increasingly unlikely, question surrounding the education deficit. While House Speaker Steve Harshman has advocated a balanced approach that includes conditional tax increases, Senate President Eli Bebout — and many others in the senate — are firmly against it.
Harshman himself has suggested that methods other than taxes, including using savings and diversions, may be enough to cover the deficit, which is significantly smaller than it was 12 months ago.
Indeed, in light of recent strong Consensus Revenue Estimating Group reports, Sen. Bill Landen, among others, has said he thought taxes were likely off the table. Madden echoed that feeling.
On the other end of the debate are educators who say that enough has been cut. Harshman and Sen. Chris Rothfuss have said that more than $70 million has been slashed from K-12 in recent years. Strong revenues and already deep cuts, coupled with a recalibration report that shows Wyoming isn’t spending an outrageous or unique amount of money, should steer lawmakers away from more reductions, they say.
“In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” the speaker said in April. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.”
Still, some lawmakers — notably Bebout and Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican — have charged that Wyoming students’ academic performances are sub par for the amount of money spent. Although they’ve stopped short of saying recalibration must be used to address what they view as a discrepancy, they continually bring it up.
While the consultants’ model as a whole is dead, it’s almost certain that pieces of it will be picked apart and used later. For instance, the proposal recommended increasing class sizes — which Rothfuss and others strongly pushed against. But the consultants simultaneously proposed hiking teacher salaries.
Both moves would reflect what’s happening in Wyoming’s schools. Many districts hire fewer teachers and have larger classes than what the state expects. They do that, educators say, so they can pay their teachers more.
Essentially, increasing class sizes and salaries go hand in hand. But lawmakers in the past have expressed an appetite for the classroom component alone. The idea cropped up repeatedly last year, and Sen. Ray Peterson, a Cowly Republican, suggested it likely would again.
“I like the results on classroom size,” he said during the revenue committee meetings. He said it could save “big dollars” and may be proposed through individual bills.
Already there are a pair of bills that pick at pieces of the current funding system. One would save around $20 million a year, and another —related to how districts receive funding for health insurance — could save tens of millions more.
But educators warn that opening up the model and doing piecemeal revisions can have a reverberating effect. For instance, hiking up class sizes will almost certainly cost all 48 districts money. That, in turn, will likely mean lower salaries for teachers. Will educators come to Wyoming for less pay? Will students’ educations be negatively affected by larger class sizes?
Much depended on recalibration. Lawmakers who spoke about the process all stopped short of calling it a failure, but Sen. Hank Coe called it a disappointment. Peterson, who also serves on the recalibration committee, praised the revenue committee’s work and seemed to take a thinly veiled shot at recalibration.
“I think we fulfilled our assignment very well, Mr. Chairman, more so than other committees I served on this interim,” he said.
Hovering above whatever happens during the legislative session is the potential for litigation. One vocal educator told the Star-Tribune last spring that three districts were prepared to file lawsuits. Four of the five largest districts in the state — excluding Natrona County — passed resolutions to allow them to sue the state should they feel cuts have gone too far.
Lawmakers have largely not been cowed by the threat of a lawsuit, and as the months have gone by, the possibility seems to have fallen. But a legislative session with heavy cuts could change that.
“Obviously some (educators) are saying, ‘If we don’t like what we get, we’ll sue you,’” Bebout said. “Well, sue us.”