In 2016, Wyoming’s education funding slid into full crisis. With the state in an energy slump stretching into its second year, schools face shortfalls of roughly $700 million in the next two-year budget cycle.
Roughly 70 percent of Wyoming’s tax base comes from minerals. When oil, gas and coal prices fell, local and state funding for education fell with them. Officials call it the double whammy: Local and state revenue streams are intertwined, which means when the former falls, the latter isn’t strong enough to top off districts who need more funding.
In good years, districts like Campbell County No. 1, which produces more in tax revenue than it needs, send money to Cheyenne. The state then distributes that money to areas that need it, like Natrona County and the majority of Wyoming’s districts.
In those good years, Wyoming has been able to fund its education above the level required. Education committee chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, has described it as putting ornaments atop a Christmas tree. State superintendent Jillian Balow said the state was paying for a Cadillac instead of the Chevy.
But 2016 was not one of those good years. Here are the top stories about the education funding crisis from 2016.
Facing a $1.8 billion hole
A report to the Joint Education Interim Committee in mid-November projected the education funding crisis could reach roughly $1.8 billion by the end of the 2022 fiscal year. The Legislature effectively drained the state’s education rainy day fund, taking out $570 million to fund schools through the current two-year budget cycle.
For 2019 and 2020, the shortfall was expected to be about $720 million. On top of that, the committee heard that the capital construction account would effectively be empty by mid-2018.
UW lost around $42 million in state funding during this budget cycle, and the university announced more than $29 million in total cuts for this fiscal year and next year. President Laurie Nichols said the university cut as much as it can.
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UW is restructuring parts of its organization, especially the Outreach School, to build on its relationship with state community colleges, and it’s set to offer another round of buy-outs to faculty. Officials told lawmakers that increasing enrollment is the university’s primary strategic priority going forward.
The re-organization of the Outreach School won’t negatively affect UW-Casper, officials have said. In May, while programs in Casper were being reviewed because of budget issues, university spokesman Chad Baldwin scoffed at the idea of closing the branch.
“We’re all in budget-cut mode, but the idea of closing (UW-Casper) is preposterous,” he said.
A crisis years in the making
Balow has said that Wyoming has been overfunding education and that it’s going “to need to think about funding education as a Chevy rather than a Cadillac in the future.” The state’s main funding model, called the evidence-based model, can be traced back to the landmark court case Campbell County vs. Wyoming, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that the state is required to provide the best education possible to all students.
In the years that followed that decision, lawmakers hammered out a way to fund education and then found money to fund above that level. Now, as funding hits a crisis point, educators and officials spoke starkly about the need to spend less and pay for the Chevy.
As legislators weighed bills to address the crisis, superintendents expressed anxiety about any more reductions. Gov. Matt Mead and lawmakers have said the state can’t cut its way out of the funding crisis, and educators warned that any more cuts could have dire consequences on programs, staffing levels and academic success.
“I’m very concerned and not feeling very good about (cuts) at all,” said Laramie County School District No. 1 Superintendent John Lytte. “We’re getting some fantastic results (from education programs), and it feels like the rug is being pulled out from underneath us.”