The state Department of Education requested $1.37 million for St. Stephens, a federal Native American school on the Wind River Reservation that’s experiencing growing enrollment.
The request was the second-largest made by the department, which presented its 2019-2020 budget to the Joint Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The agency also sought $2.25 million for the education of students in residential facilities, along with much smaller amounts for anti-bullying efforts, teacher of the year incentives and instructor certification.
The department officials made their requests as they walked lawmakers through the two budgets that they oversee. First is the department’s, which is paid for out of the state’s general fund, and second is the vast K-12 education budget that fills the vast majority of school districts’ coffers.
The St. Stephens request was a late addition to the department’s budget: Dicky Shanor, the chief of staff for WDE, said lawmakers were informed Wednesday night, after officials discovered that enrollment at the school had jumped. The department had already submitted its budget but needed to acquire funding to adjust for the increase of students.
The school’s unique circumstances — a Bureau of Indian Education institution located within a Wyoming school district that receives state funds — created confusion among the lawmakers of the Joint Appropriations Committee.
“So St. Stephens is in a different school district” than Arapahoe, appropriations chairman and Sheridan Republican Bruce Burns asked.
“It’s not in a school district, per se,” replied Jed Cicarelli of the education department.
“Arapahoe is in (Fremont County School District No.) 38,” Burns said. “What school district is St. Stephens?”
“It operates within the boundaries of Fremont 38 but is not affiliated with Fremont School District 38,” Cicarelli said.
“That just clears it right up,” Burns replied sarcastically, drawing laughter from the room.
Eventually, after more back-and-forth, department officials and Fremont Republican Rep. Lloyd Larsen explained that St. Stephens is a federal school overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education, which receives about $2.9 million from that agency. On top of that amount, Wyoming sends it more money so it’s on par with how much is given to the three Fremont school districts that are nearby.
That’s where the budget request comes in. Enrollment at St. Stephens had jumped from 188 students to 240 in the past two years, and because school funding in Wyoming is driven by attendance, that required a bump in funding.
Of course, it’s somewhat more complicated. While public schools in Wyoming are funded out of a big pot of money known as the School Foundation Program, St. Stephens isn’t technically a Wyoming public school — it’s a BIE school.
That means the money would have to come from the state’s general fund, rather than from within the separate pot of money set aside to fund public schools.
Some lawmakers wondered in broad terms if the school could be eliminated and its students sent to the nearby districts. Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, pointed out that if the students were attending St. Stephens, then they weren’t attending other Fremont County schools — meaning they weren’t bringing the state funding that follows students to those schools.
Cicarelli noted that technically, these funds wouldn’t have gone to other schools because they’re not coming the from education funding accounts. Still, generally speaking, when a student attends a public school, that district receives state funding for the student; it simply comes from the school account, not the general fund.
“I guess it would be politically problematic, but can we tell the school to go away and take care of (the students) ourselves?” Rep. Sue Wilson, a Cheyenne Republican asked.
“I guess we could talk to BIE about the situation,” Shanor, the education department’s chief of staff, replied cautiously, “but they’ve made the decision to have that school there and fund them.”
With that, lawmakers prepared to move on, apparently satisfied that they understood St. Stephens. That is, until Rep. Bob Nicholas noted he actually attended the school, when it was a Catholic institution.
“Wait, it was a Catholic school?” Burns asked.