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Dave Bald Eagle as Dan sizes up author Kent Nerburn, portrayed by Christopher Sweeney in "Neither Wolf Nor Dog." The independent film by Steven Lewis Simpson opens Friday in Casper. 

Wyoming lawmakers recommend $26.6 million payment to schools for inflation

Wyoming lawmakers recommended providing $26.6 million to school districts here via an inflation adjustment Friday, less than 24 hours after a coalition of districts distributed a letter from an attorney criticizing the state’s lack of action in recent years.

The Joint Education Committee voted 9 to 3 to add the money to what’s known as the external cost adjustment, or ECA, which is essentially a mechanism used to help Wyoming schools offset inflation. If the recommendation is approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee in November, the addition would be the first ECA bump in several years.

The ECA is separate from the regional cost adjustment, which is a mechanism used to give districts in costlier places — like Jackson — more money to hire. Lawmakers are also seriously considering changes to that adjustment, which may result in a significant hit for Natrona County.

The move to improve the ECA — opposed by Republican Sens. Hank Coe and Affie Ellis and Rep. Evan Simpson — came after the coalition of school districts delivered a letter describing the need for such an adjustment. The group included Laramie County School District No. 1, Sweetwater County School Districts 1 and 2 and several others. Natrona County School District is not a member of the coalition.

In its letter, the coalition criticized the Legislature’s 2009 decision to forego the ECA and replace it with a “monitoring” process. The districts wrote that the state decided to hold off on giving an inflation bump because the model that funds Wyoming schools was richer than law required. Essentially, the schools were being given more money than they technically should have, so why give even more funding each year to make up for inflation? Instead, lawmakers decided to monitor the model until what schools received matched what was required.

Educators have not accepted that move quietly. Over the past two years, especially in the wake of statewide cuts, administrators have repeatedly criticized the lack of an ECA. On Thursday, Sweetwater No. 2 Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo said the loss in purchasing power and legislative cuts was making it difficult for her to make hires.

Down in the southwest corner of the state, Little-Kaumo said her district was struggling to compete with Utah, as that state’s governor calls for improved teaching salaries. Little-Kaumo’s district hasn’t been able to hire a needed custodian, so she and others are vacuuming the floors.

“I do not know what else to do. I’m not sleeping,” she told lawmakers Thursday. “We cannot continue to educate kids and have people not understand that the erosion of purchasing power has an exponential effect on kids.”

The coalition, and educators more broadly, has argued that the ECA isn’t about providing a funding boost. It’s about keeping things constant.

“In short, ECAs do nothing more than maintain the status quo, i.e. purchasing power, of districts in between recalibrations, by adjusting to provide for the effects of inflation,” the letter, sent by Hickey & Evans, the coalition’s Cheyenne-based attorneys.

Recalibrations are the state process, undertaken every five years, through which lawmakers study the school funding model and determine what’s needed to provide an equitable education to all Wyoming students.

Though the committee took action Friday, it’s far from certain that an ECA bump will actually happen. The Joint Appropriations Committee holds the purse strings, and whether that body chooses to give money to a school funding system that some lawmakers consider overfunded is far from certain.

Multiple challenges

Still, educators argue that they’re being hit from all sides: They’ve faced cuts in three consecutive legislative sessions as costs continue to go up and enrollment — a key factor in determining a district’s funding — have fallen steadily since the 2015 bust.

Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association, said in an interview the “court was very clear”: The Legislature must make inflation adjustments regularly. He was referring to a Wyoming Supreme Court decision from several years ago, which — as quoted in the coalition’s letter — found that “the amount computed for each district ... shall be adjusted to provide for the effects of inflation.”

Farmer noted that a state report showed that, after recent cuts, Wyoming was now underfunding its education system by $22 million. So, he said, even under the legislators’ monitoring system, the model was still signaling that it was short of funds.

David Northrup, the Joint Education Committee’s co-chair, said he was “glad to see the ECA (increase) was suggested” and that the state needs to maintain funding for the model.

“We gotta do something,” he said. “What do you want to do? Go to court?”

But Northrup said he thought the chances were “thin” that the Appropriations Committee would agree to all $26.6 million. He expected those lawmakers would trim it, and he guessed the final number would be $22 million, enough to bring the funding levels back to where the model dictates.

Teresa Chaulk, the superintendent in Lincoln County School District No. 1 and a member of the ECA coalition, said the inflation adjustment wasn’t about more money; it was about keeping districts as whole as possible.

“I do believe that Wyoming is not in the dire straits it was two, three years ago,” she said.

Pair of lawmakers go through Natrona County School District's active-shooter training

The room is largely empty. The first of two long rows of tables and chairs is almost entirely unoccupied, save for one school administrator, a bag of red plush balls and the toy gun that shoots small rubber balls, a stand-in for the weapons that have left a trail of carnage in schools across America.

It’s another day of active shooter training in the Natrona County School District. Some of these classes attract more than 30 people. Today, it’s 10. Two attendees are newly hired school resource officers. One is a reporter. Three are district administrators. Two are the course’s instructors.

The final two are state legislators, Cheyenne’s Sen. Affie Ellis and Green River’s Rep. John Freeman. Ellis is a Republican attorney and Freeman is a Democratic educator.

The invitation for the Wednesday training was extended to the entire Joint Education Committee, nine House members and five senators. The district was planning on six lawmakers showing up. Only Ellis and Freeman attend. Ellis says she’s interested as both a lawmaker and a parent. Freeman says he came because school safety has always been a passion.

ALICE — or alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate training — has been taught here since 2014. It includes more than two hours of classroom discussion about active shooters in schools: They’re mostly male, they mostly operate alone, they mostly fall into one of three psychological profiles (psychotic, psychopathic and disgruntled), they usually don’t take hostages.

ALICE’s instructor, the school district’s risk manager Andrea Nester, is eager, even in front of such a small group. During lunch at the Joint Education Committee’s Thursday meeting, Nester will tell four more lawmakers she’ll do whatever the state needs to help spread ALICE and similar trainings. One of the committee’s priorities is examining how best to protect students in schools, and Nester firmly believes this is the way to do that.

On Wednesday, she starts her slideshow the way she has before, with a cartoon of emergency vehicles speeding down a roadway, past a sign that says, “Welcome to It Could Never Happen Here, USA.”

She walks the class through calculations. When police resolve active shooter situations, the attacks last nine to 11 minutes. When the shooter resolves it himself — usually by killing himself — it ends after five to 11 minutes.

But when the victims resolve it? When the attacked fight back, by running or swarming or throwing or yelling? Forty-five seconds, Nester says. She tells the group not to rely on the police. That doesn’t mean don’t call 911. But, she explains with another calculation, by the time officers arrive, a shooter will have time to kill 44 people.

Nor does it mean sit and wait for the bullet.

“Sitting there, begging for your life, is doing nothing,” she says.

Nester rails against lockdown-only schools as “sitting-duck” schools. Run, barricade, shout, throw books. Her refrain throughout these trainings: Keep moving.

After the classroom discussions are the demonstrations, the reason for the Nerf-like gun. It looks more like a space blaster from a sci-fi movie; it fires little orange and white balls in a steady stream at about 120 feet per second, and its battery whirs when turned on. (Nester used to teach the training using two realistic airsoft guns, but the national institute that runs the training switched to more toy-like weapons in recent months.)

First is a scenario where the victims pretend they’re in a lockdown school. The administrators and journalist and lawmakers and cops are all told to hide in the large open conference room, where there isn’t really anywhere to hide, and await their fate. The gunman — or gunwoman in this case, since fellow instructor Theresa Simpson is holding the gun — walks in and shoots each person.

Ellis crawls under a desk and is shot first. Freeman huddles by some chairs nearby and is shot shortly after. One of the cops, Walker Galloway, crawls around the floor, pulling tables over for cover, until he, too, is shot.

During the debriefing afterward, Nester asks the group how that felt. The question feels aimed most acutely at the two lawmakers.

“It felt like a foregone conclusion that I was going to be shot,” Ellis says. “It was just a question of where.”

“And when,” Freeman adds.

Ellis plays the shooter next. This time, the participants are allowed to run out of the building as soon as the senator walks in, the blaster pressed against her shoulder, its engine whirring. She shoots three people, killing one.

Nester notes the difference in the death count between the first two scenarios.

“You had 29 seconds last time to find a really great hiding spot, and all of you were killed,” Nester says. “And this time, you only had two seconds, and only one person was killed and two people were wounded.”

Galloway, the police officer, shoulders the blaster next. The victims can do more than run this time — they can throw the plush balls or they can swarm the officer-turned-attacker. (The other officer breaks the rules and hurls a chair at Galloway. Nester is displeased.) Galloway killed three — including Freeman — and wounded another.

Finally, Nester asks the group how they feel about arming staff. The other officer, Justin Edberg, says he thinks in certain situations, school employees should have guns. Nester calls him up and hands him another toy gun, noting that it’s loaded with the safety off. She peppers Edberg with questions.

“Where are you going to store that weapon?” she asks.

“On my person,” Edberg replies.

“On your person,” Nester repeats. “Is it concealed or not concealed?”


“It’s concealed. Do you honestly think if it’s concealed, students aren’t going to know it’s there?”

“If you’re smart about it, yeah.”

Nester pauses.

“Yeah, students are going to know it’s there.” She turns to Freeman. “As a teacher for 33 years, are students going to see that concealed weapon?”

“Yes,” the legislator nods.

Nester goes back to questioning Edberg. Is he sure he wants to keep it on his person? Definitely, he says. He won’t bring a weapon into a school otherwise. What if he gets too close and a student takes it? Could he have just armed a school shooter? What if the student walks in a back door and the teacher has to shoot over the heads of his or her students?

As they’re talking, Galloway stands up, walks to the front of the class and grabs the blaster. He turns it on, presses it to his shoulder and swings it around, shooting everyone, including Edberg. Ellis is the only one who makes an effort to escape. She’s still hit in the head.

The point of this final scenario is this: Edberg — a trained police officer — had the gun loaded and ready in his hand, and a threat walked right in front of him, picked up a weapon and killed everyone in the room.

“There’s a lot of considerations that you have to have when you start talking about teachers with guns,” Nester says. “It’s hard enough for police officers — who are well-trained, go through live-fire exercises probably every six months, qualify on every weapons system — to hit their target, let alone taking somebody whose focus is not security, but teaching, and put a gun in their hands.”

Wyoming passed a bill in 2017 that allowed districts to decide whether to arm their staff members or not. Both Ellis and Freeman voted for that bill. After the training ends, both say they still support some districts arming staff, especially in rural areas. But it’s not appropriate for everybody, they say, nor is having a school resource officer in every building.

Both said more lawmakers and policymakers should go through the training, especially as school safety becomes an increasingly urgent topic. Freeman wants to make more parents aware of the training. Ellis says she doesn’t think the emotion she felt can be replicated anywhere else.

“Crawling underneath a table and waiting, knowing and feeling helpless, versus running and not even seeing the shooter — once I heard (the instructor) say, ‘He’s got a gun,’ I didn’t even see him,” she says. “I just saw the door.”

Trump agrees to FBI probe of Kavanaugh, bows to Flake, Dems

WASHINGTON — Reversing course, President Donald Trump bowed to Democrats’ demands Friday for a deeper FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after Republican Sen. Jeff Flake balked at voting for confirmation without it — a sudden turn that left Senate approval newly uncertain amid allegations of sexual assault.

Kavanaugh’s nomination had appeared back on track earlier Friday when he cleared a key hurdle at the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that advance came with an asterisk. Flake indicated he would take the next steps — leading to full Senate approval — only after the further background probe, and there were suggestions that other moderate Republicans might join his revolt.

The abrupt developments gave senators, the White House and millions of Americans following the drama at home hardly a chance to catch their breath after Thursday’s emotional Senate hearing featuring Kavanaugh angrily defending himself and accuser Christine Blasey Ford determinedly insisting he assaulted her when they were teens.

Emotions were still running high Friday, and protesters confronted senators in the halls.

“The country is being ripped apart here,” said Flake.

After he took his stance, Republican leaders had little choice but to slow their rush to confirm Kavanaugh, whom they had hoped to have in place shortly after the new court term begins on Monday.

Trump quietly followed suit, though he had vigorously resisted asking the FBI to probe the allegations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh, now being raised by three women. One day earlier, he had blistered the Senate process as “a total sham,” accused Democrats of a conspiracy of obstruction and declared on Twitter, “The Senate must vote!”

The new timeline puts Trump’s nominee in further peril and pushes the politically risky vote for senators closer to the November congressional elections. It also means that any cases the Supreme Court hears before a ninth justice is in place will be decided by just eight, raising the possibility of tie votes.

It was clear Republicans were still short of votes for final Senate approval after Thursday’s hearing. They convened late into the evening in a room in the Capitol with various senators, including Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, raising pointed questions, according to those familiar with the private meeting but granted anonymity to discuss it.

Republican leaders said — and Trump ordered — that the new probe be “limited in scope.” But there was no specific direction as to what that might include. Two other women besides Ford have also lodged public sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh.

Democrats have been particularly focused on getting more information from Mark Judge, a high school friend of Kavanaugh who Ford said was also in the room during her alleged assault. Judge has said he does not recall any such incident. In a new letter to the Senate panel, he said he would cooperate with any law enforcement agency assigned to investigate “confidentially.”

Kavanaugh issued his own statement through the White House saying he’s been interviewed by the FBI before, done “background” calls with the Senate and answered questions under oath “about every topic” senators have asked.

“I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate,” said the 53-year-old judge.

Flake, a key moderate Republican, was at the center of Friday’s uncertainty. In the morning, he announced he would support Kavanaugh’s nomination. Shortly after, he was confronted in an elevator by two women who, through tears, said they were sexual assault victims and implored him to change his mind.

“Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me,” said 23-year-old Maria Gallagher, a volunteer with a liberal advocacy group.

The confrontation was captured by television cameras.

Soon he was working on a new deal with his Republican colleagues and Democrats in a Judiciary Committee anteroom.

Flake announced he would vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate only if the FBI were to investigate. Democrats have been calling for such a probe, though Republicans and the White House have insisted it was unnecessary. The committee vote was 11-10 along party lines.

Attention quickly turned to a handful of undeclared senators.

Two other key Republicans, Collins and Murkowski, said they backed the plan after they and other GOP senators met for an hour in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the Capitol.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin said he supported Flake’s call for a further probe “so that our country can have confidence in the outcome of this vote.”

With a 51-49 majority, Senate Republicans have little margin for error on a final vote, especially given the fact that several Democrats facing tough re-election prospects this fall announced their opposition to Kavanaugh on Friday. Bill Nelson of Florida, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana all said they would vote no.

Flake’s vote on final approval is not assured either.

The FBI conducts background checks for federal nominees, but the agency does not make judgments on the credibility or significance of allegations. It compiles information about the nominee’s past and provides its findings to the White House, which passes them along to the committee.