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State education consultants recommend bumping class sizes and salaries

A much-awaited report hoping to help solve Wyoming’s education budget crisis was released Monday, suggesting changes to class sizes and how much teachers are paid.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates — the Denver-based consultants that are undertaking a top-down review of the state’s education system — had previously revealed several of the recommendations to lawmakers. Though this draft report is the most fleshed-out look into what Wyoming’s education system may become, it still lacks crucial information — like how much the changes would cost compared to what the state spends now.

The report is an important piece of the state’s recalibration, a process that closely examines how schools are funded that is typically completed every five years. As Wyoming grapples with a large education funding shortfall, lawmakers decided to initiate the review process three years early.

Matt Willmarth, a state school finance expert, said in an email that the price of the consultant’s model will be provided by Jan. 12.

While there are a number of proposals within the 552-page report, potentially the most impactful are the salary and class size pieces. But the recommendations also suggest an examination of transportation and special education spending, both of which are areas of particular interest to lawmakers.

Currently, the state’s 48 districts receive their funding in a block grant based on a metric of their attendance. The money comes with few strings attached, meaning that while districts have to hit a number of accountability targets, they are also able to spend their dollars largely at their own discretion.

Two of the biggest variants between what’s funded in the model and what actually happens on the ground are salaries and class sizes. For instance, districts receive funding to keep class sizes at a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. But many choose to spend some of that funding to pay teachers more. The average class size, then, is slightly over 18 to 1, and Wyoming pays an average of $3,900 more to teachers than what the current model dictates.

The consultant’s recommendations would technically change that. It would bump salary funding, bringing them closer to what districts actually pay. But it would also increase class sizes, which can have a significant negative impact on how much money a district receives.

Educators and lawmakers suspect those changes would generally offset each other, in terms of funding changes. But because the consultants have yet to provide a total price tag for their recommendations, it’s nearly impossible to say for certain.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • providing additional funding for at-risk students and English language learners;
  • providing a size adjustment to protect smaller districts from significant funding shifts depending on enrollment changes;
  • increasing funding for instructional facilitators;
  • reducing funding for assistant principals;
  • calling for districts to collaborate on special education and transportation.

The recommendations would also keep the health insurance funding model the same, which has been a target by some lawmakers for at least a year. They note that many districts’ employees don’t use health insurance, despite those districts receiving state funding for them. Indeed, the Joint Education Committee considered two bills to change how insurance is funded last month.

But what’s the cost?

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat who sits on the Select Committee for School Finance Recalibration, says his rough estimates suggest the proposed recommendations would come out relatively close to what the state spends now on its current model.

“I tried to do a quick just run through it and imagine and honestly couldn’t come up with anything,” he said Monday, of a final price tag. But he added that it should be “pretty close” to what the state pays now.

Rep. Albert Sommers, who chairs the recalibration committee, said he also guessed it may not “be a lot different” from the state’s current K-12 education price tag. But he stressed that was a guess.

A number of officials declined comment because of the size of the report, which many received Monday morning. Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican and member of the recalibration committee, was stuck in an airport Monday morning and was unable to comment. He’s hinted in the past that he favors cuts to education.

Sen. Bill Landen, Speaker Steve Harshman, Kathy Vetter of the Wyoming Education Association and officials from the Natrona County School District also declined to comment, all saying they wanted to further examine the report first.

Looking ahead

The report raises a number of questions about the future of Wyoming education. Most pressing is whether the recommendations will lead anywhere: In 2015, the state held recalibration and ended up with a model that was similar in price to the current one. So they dropped the model and stuck with the current one.

Rothfuss suspected that may happen again, if indeed this model — which, again, has not been fully priced and built — doesn’t cut costs significantly.

That prospect raises further concerns. When lawmakers in March decided to initiate recalibration, there was concern that it was an effort to introduce backdoor cuts to education. While Harshman and Sommers both said at the time that was unlikely (and would have very likely prompted a lawsuit), a desire for cuts still remains a driving force behind recalibration for some lawmakers.

“For me, this whole endeavor really was for some legislators to dramatically cut funding,” Rothfuss said. “And I don’t see it providing that.”

Sommers said he could not predict what the committee would do, whether it would draft a bill to bring before the Legislature. Rothfuss said he was split on what would happen next. Both stressed that without a dollar figure, it’s difficult to look too far into the future.

“I learned a lesson once this year,” Sommers said. “You want to look ahead, but if you look too far ahead you make too many assumptions, and I think you’ve go to be careful as you look ahead not to make too many assumptions.”

Rothfuss said he thought the lawmakers may take pieces of the recommendations — specifically increasing class sizes, which some legislators have shown an appetite for in the past — and try to implement them in the current model.

Think of the current funding model as a machine. Each piece is related to another, and educators and some lawmakers have warned that opening the hood and tweaking parts will have drastic effects on other parts.

In this case, if lawmakers were to cut funding for class sizes and bump up ratios without lifting salaries, then that would be a significant piece removed without the necessary salary change. It would mean heavy cuts.

The consultants recognized the link between class sizes and salaries. In their report, they say that if class sizes are increased without salary boosts, it would “likely push class sizes outside the bounds of current research best practices and adequacy findings.”

That, in turn, could lead to lawsuits. In the spring, a number of large districts — though not Natrona County — passed resolutions allowing them to sue the state should they feel that cuts have gone too far. Both Sommers and Brian Farmer of the Wyoming School Boards Association mentioned the potential for litigation by districts.

What comes next is unknown. The legislative session begins Feb. 12 and will last 20 business days. The recalibration committee will have its final meeting on Jan. 23 and 24. In the balance floats the future of education funding in Wyoming.

Dispute continues over state money planned for Events Center seats, emergency projects

State money to fix a pipeline that pumps water from Casper to Edgerton and Midwest hangs in the balance as Natrona County and Casper officials disagree about how it should be spent, the Edgerton mayor said Monday.

“It’s time for the city and the county to start playing nice with each other so the rest of us can start living our life and get it moving again,” Edgerton Mayor H.H. Buck King said Monday.

Consensus money comes from the state and is intended to help communities with various infrastructure issues. The State Loan and Investment Board approved the use of Countywide Consensus Grants for multiple projects submitted by Natrona County for the 2015-2016 fiscal years, but one of those plans — the Amoco Reuse Convention Center — never panned out.

As a result, about $2.2 million of the allotted money is leftover for municipalities in Natrona County. The city of Casper wants to use $600,000 for new Casper Events Center seats and metal detectors, $200,000 for a public safety radio tower and $185,646 to replace the Casper Ice Arena ice plant. Edgerton and Midwest are jointly requesting $293,400 to fix a waterline.

But all involved parties have to agree on a proposal before it can be submitted to the investment board for approval, and Natrona County Commissioner Chairman John Lawson said that the county needs more time to consider the seating and ice plant projects.

All of the proposals are now at a standstill, which prompted King to speak out.

Water flows from Casper to Midwest and Edgerton in a 37-mile pipeline, which is 20 years old and surrounded by corrosive soil, explained King.

A portion of the line is in such poor condition it’s been dubbed the “million dollar mile” because it sprung about six leaks this year, said the mayor. Each leak costs the towns between $10,000 and $15,000 to repair.

“I would really like to see this project get underway,” said King, adding that the county and city need to stop acting “childish” and find a solution.

Other towns had also put in requests: Evansville wants $500,000 to work on metro road connections and Mills is asking for $150,000 to repair or replace park equipment.

Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said Monday that replacing park equipment is not critically urgent, but that he would still appreciate a prompt resolution.

Attempts to reach Evansville Mayor Phil Hinds and Midwest Mayor Guy Chapman were unsuccessful.

The county understands that many local leaders want the issue to be quickly resolved, but an agreement has yet to be reached, Lawson said Monday.

“We’re still in discussions,” he said, adding that he did not want to elaborate on negotiations to the media.

Lawson previously told the Star-Tribune that he thought the city and county agreed the money should only be used for urgent projects, and the county did not consider the issues at the Events Center and ice plant to be critical issues. Remaining funds could then be saved for future emergencies.

But Casper City Councilman Charlie Powell said last week that the Council believes the commission is overstepping its bounds.

“It’s our stance that the county commissioners are essentially trying to control decisions that are properly made by the Casper City Council,” he said.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Wyoming's Louis Adams pushes his way past Drake's Ore Arogundade during their game Dec. 2 at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.