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Can Wyoming pick up the slack if it rejects federal money for school lunches?

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School meals

Student breakfasts at North Casper Elementary School are shown in 2013. 

Wyoming will have “well in excess of $40 million annually” to cover the cost of school lunches in the absence of federal funding, state Treasurer Curt Meier says.

But that amount, he said, is a “separate question” from the approximately $300 million annual deficit in funding for K-12 education that the state already faces.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder said in a statement Wednesday that he would reject $40 million in annual federal funding for school lunches rather than have Wyoming schools comply with new federal nondiscrimination policy requirements.

On May 5, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service announced that it would reinterpret the prohibition of discrimination based on sex in Title IX to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The change requires any organization that gets money from the Food and Nutrition Service to “investigate allegations of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation” and “update their non-discrimination policies and signage to include prohibitions against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” according to the USDA’s statement. Organizations could risk losing federal funding if they don’t comply.

Schroeder denounced the USDA’s reinterpretation of its nondiscrimination policy in a statement almost a month later. He said the move was part of the federal government’s “ever-relentless agenda of social engineering” and emphasized that schools would have to comply with the new requirement to get federal funding for school lunches. The next week, the Wyoming Department of Education said in a statement that the superintendent stood by his words.

On Wednesday, Schroeder issued another statement calling for Wyomingites to reject this federal funding and “appeal to their local legislators concerning the liberating prospects of severing our dependence on federal dollars.”

In language that hasn’t been seen before from a Wyoming schools superintendent, Schroeder said in the statement that he and others “categorically reject gender ideology.”

“Washington has shown its hand, and will never stop at forcing its woke agenda and ever-changing value system on people who refuse to embrace it,” he said in the statement. “Be fully assured, this is not the end — they will be back (i.e. boys in girls sports, forced usage of pronouns, etc.).”

He said that Meier and “a host” of state leaders had told him Wyoming has enough money to cover the cost of school lunches.

Gov. Mark Gordon’s spokesperson and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office did not respond to the Star-Tribune for comment before deadline.

Wyoming should have enough money to cover the cost of school lunches for at least a two-year budget cycle, according to Meier.

Wyoming’s April revenue update shows that revenues so far exceed what was forecast in January by about $120 million across several of the state’s accounts. A chunk of that comes from unexpected spikes in price and production of oil, gas and coal. Legislative Service Office Co-Chairman Don Richards said that amount will probably increase even more when the next report comes out in July.

What comes after the first biennium is less certain.

The $40 million that Wyoming would need annually to pay for school lunches would be in addition to the approximately $300 million annual deficit in funding for education that the state is already grappling with.

Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, the main sponsor for a bill this past legislative session that would have banned transgender women from competing on female sports teams, said she couldn’t imagine that Wyoming would be able to come up with money for school lunches given that the state has “a hard enough time right now with education funding.”

That’s what she told Schroeder when he talked with her about school lunch funding, she said.

“If you come up with a silver bullet, then sure, I’m all for looking at different options. But even though I may not agree with the USDA, you just don’t mess with school lunches for kids.”

Senate Revenue Committee Chairman Cale Case, R-Lander, said the state would probably have to change its school funding model to accommodate the new expense. He added that this probably wouldn’t be easily accomplished. (Schroeder didn’t reach out to Case for his opinion on funding for school lunches).

Meier also said he thinks changing the state’s funding model would be a “hard one to crack.”

But the situation isn’t “all doom and gloom,” according to Meier; Wyoming has investment revenue to lean on, and “there’s a lot of hope” in the potential for revenue from the uranium and wind industries, for example.

But a strong uranium industry is a long way off, and it’d be hard for wind energy to generate a level of revenue that’s comparable to those from oil, gas and coal.

In any case, schools can’t have that $40 million per year for lunches unless the Legislature approves it. With elections coming up, it’s hard to predict how likely that would be.

Schroeder also hasn’t mentioned in any of his statements on the nondiscrimination policy requirements whether he has thought about funding for other school expenses that are currently paid by the federal government. Wyoming Department of Education Spokesperson Linda Finnerty said Schroeder is traveling and won’t be available for further comment until Monday.

In the 2020-2021 school year, Wyoming schools received about $234,448,000 in total federal funding, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. (That amount includes COVID money). The department was not able to get back to the Star-Tribune by deadline with the total amount of federal funding for Wyoming schools this academic year.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said Wyoming “really, really (needs) to know what the impacts of federal funding are,” including how much schools rely on federal funding and what that money actually pays for.

“I’m generally supportive of Wyoming going straight out of federal funding,” he said, adding that he was optimistic about Wyoming’s ability to make up for the loss of federal funding. (Schroeder had also reached out to Driskill about funding for school lunches).

Several other legislators did not respond to the Star-Tribune by deadline for comment.

Money aside, the decision around whether or not Wyoming will pick up a potential slack in federal funding leaves one group in the dust; the LGBTQ+ kids that the reinterpreted nondiscrimination policies are meant to protect.

“I don’t necessarily like the federal government dictating things to us, but I also think there’s an overreaction to this whole transgender issue,” Case said.

“It’s really important for these kids, and I think we need to be more supportive of them.”

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