Lawmakers advanced one bill to cut roughly $16 million from Wyoming schools and another to add computer science to the educational program Tuesday in what was almost certainly the last Joint Education Committee meeting for the next several months.
The meeting — which also saw lawmakers shoot down two bills — brings to a close an arduous interim for one of the several committees working to solve the state’s education funding crisis. Though the shortfall facing Wyoming’s schools has lessened significantly compared to this time last year, the hole is still more than $340 million for day-to-day operations alone for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.
Devising ways to chip away at the number was the top task of the committee. To that effect, lawmakers narrowly passed a bill that would cut about $16 million more from schools through a number of relatively small changes, such as adjusting how schools calculate their enrollment to ensure no students are counted more than once. The bill would also cut about $2 million in testing dollars and change how groundskeepers are funded.
Lawmakers did, however, remove a provision in the bill that would have blocked districts from providing extra payments or incentives to employees who choose to live or work in unique areas.
Rep. John Freeman, a Green River Democrat, said the $200,000 that such a move would save the state wasn’t too much too sacrifice if it meant giving districts flexibility.
Freeman was successful in that amendment, but he failed in removing the piece of the bill that cut $2 million in testing funding. Sen. Chris Rothfuss said students taking one less test, at the price of saving $2 million, was worth it. The entirety of the committee — with the exception of Freeman — agreed and killed his amendment.
While that finance legislation was an amalgamation of cost-cutting measures, a pair of bills the committee considered had broader implications. For at least a year, lawmakers have considered the problem of health insurance. Currently, the state pays districts for health insurance based on its funding model, rather than on the number of employees actually using the insurance. Because the state funding comes in the form of a block grant, districts can use the leftover insurance dollars how they see fit.
One bill would’ve required that districts enroll in the state health care plan, as Natrona County School District does. The other bill would close the gap between the what the model provides and what the districts use for health insurance.
Educators balked at the first proposal and urged patience on the second.
“The first bill to me, it just doesn’t feel right,” said Janine Bay Teske, the vice chairman of the Teton County school board and a fixture at education committee meetings. “To me it feels like what’s being referred to at the federal level as a single-payer system.”
Rep. Debbie Bovie, a Casper Democrat, wondered why only Natrona County, of the 48 school districts in Wyoming, had enrolled in the state’s health insurance plan.
“It was a million dollars more,” Jon Abrams, superintendent of Laramie County School District No. 2, replied. “That’s 5 percent of our budget. If we could’ve saved money, we would’ve. In times of cuts, we’re always looking at ways to save money.”
Sally Wells, the business manager for Carbon County School District No. 2, said it was $500,000 more for her district. Jeremy Smith, the business manager for Sheridan County No. 1, also criticized the proposal.
Sen. Hank Coe, the co-chairman of the joint education committee and a frequent critic of the health care funding disparity, asked Smith if he thought it was appropriate that the state pays for insurance when it isn’t fully used.
“I think it’s appropriate that the state funds a funding model that recognizes all the costs that it takes to deliver the educational basket of goods to the kids in Wyoming,” he replied. “ ... The short answer to your question Mr. Co-chairman is yes, I do think so.”
When the bill was finally brought up for a vote, not a single member of the committee wanted to touch it. It died after several seconds of silence.
But its companion — the measure that would cut funding closer to what was actually being used by districts — was passed, essentially as a means to ensure that the Legislature would see it. Rothfuss explained that the recalibration committee — which is taking a broad look at the school’s funding model, including health insurance — may not bring a bill to the full Legislature. In that case, the education committee needed to have something about health insurance, he said.
Elsewhere, the committee also passed a bill that would bring computer science into the state’s educational program, often called the basket of goods. The measure would allow high school students to take computer science and use it to replace a year of science in the graduation requirement or a year of math for the Hathaway Scholarship — but not both, unless a student took multiple years of computer science.
It also killed a bill to cut funding to charter schools.
The passed bills must all still make it through the Legislature, which will meet in mid-February for exactly 20 business days.