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Clean Start

A worker power washes new brick at Natrona County High School on Thursday evening in Casper. The historic school is nearing the last phase of an extensive multi-year renovation and expansion.

Lawmakers and educators met Monday to begin the process of adjusting — or fully replacing — the state’s education funding model, which faces a $400 million annual shortfall in the coming years.

The meeting comes as educators begin grappling with recent cuts and lawmakers plan the next move in dealing with the crisis. At least one school district has already passed a resolution authorizing a lawsuit in the future, while other boards are poised to do the same. Educators have said recent cuts by the Legislature have exceeded what is statutorily and constitutionally allowed.

Legislators hope the funding model examination process, known as recalibration, will help tackle the situation by looking at the model as a whole.

Recalibration is used to determine what constitutes an adequate education and what it will cost to deliver that schooling. It normally happens every five years and was set to begin again in 2020. But the massive education deficit ready to hit in the next two-year budget cycle has accelerated a timeline established more than a decade ago under the watchful eye of the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Some lawmakers, like Sen. Hank Coe, the co-chairman of the recalibration select committee, have heralded an early re-calibration as the best method to address the shortfall. When lawmakers finally passed an education bill last month, it included a provision to automatically set the process in motion.

That bill, House Bill 236, enacts more than $34 million in cuts to public education. Those reductions are set for only the coming school year, and the bill implicitly states that they’re temporary because of the hopes being pinned on recalibration.

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Generally speaking, lawmakers, with the advice of consultants and input from educators, parents and other stakeholders, can decide to continue with or tweak the model they’ve used for more than a decade, known as the evidence-based model, or pick a different, potentially cheaper, alternative.

Educators and some lawmakers warn that picking a cheaper option solely because it costs less is not what recalibration is intended for.

“In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” House Speaker Steve Harshman asked at the beginning of the meeting. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.”

Senate President Eli Bebout, who joined the meeting by conference call, raised a broader question: Given that Wyoming spends significantly more per student than its regional neighbors, is the state getting a reasonable return on its investment?

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, agreed, saying the evaluation of the current model or any new ones should begin with a focus on student achievement.

In recalibration, “we need to look at the overall cost of education,” Bebout said. “What we have now simply isn’t working when we spend the amount of money we’re spending and we don’t perform any better than we’ve been performing.”

Bill Schilling, the executive director of the Wyoming Business Alliance, testified to lawmakers that he wasn’t sure if Wyoming’s students would be worse off academically if it didn’t so richly fund its education system. His solution to the $400 million annual deficit was to cut $200 million from education and raise $200 million in new revenues.

“That’s about 5 percent, or 6 percent, for K-12,” he said. “This is the reality. And the reality isn’t going to go away.”

But Harshman and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, pointed out that on the education system’s budget of roughly $1.55 billion a year, a $200 million cut would be closer to a 13 percent reduction.

Whether students in Wyoming are underachieving is a question of contention that can often be debunked or validated by the same sets of data, as Rothfuss pointed out. For instance, Wyoming’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that the state’s eighth-graders were statistically near the middle of the pack for mathematics. That can be a deflating result, given that the state spends more than $15,000 per student.

But in terms of areas that had statistically different and superior scores, Wyoming was bested by only six states, Rothfuss said.

“I think it’s critical, starting now, that we don’t make assertions, that we bring evidence and data, so that we understand how we’re doing relative to other states,” he said at the beginning of the meeting, “so that we look at this as data analysts, instead of just picking and choosing data that fits our narrative.”

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Added to the drama is the real possibility that the state could again be dragged into court by school districts. Last week, the Campbell County school board passed a resolution allowing the district to sue the state, in direct response to recent cuts and ahead of recalibration talks. A state attorney focused on education testified repeatedly, and lawmakers frequently talked about stepping carefully during recalibration because recent cuts had turned the situation into a legal minefield.

Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent for Sweetwater County School District No. 2, said last week that her board will consider a nearly identical resolution.

On Monday, she sat in front of lawmakers and testified that other states that might outperform Wyoming might have eliminated their arts programs. She lamented the cuts to funding for instructional materials, like textbooks, that will hurt districts like hers, which had to layoff three employees.

“What do we want our kids to have in Wyoming?” she asked.

She said later that she was disheartened by the early discussions at the meeting, which educators said last week could determine whether districts file suit against the state. She felt there was a “distaste” for education by some lawmakers.

Sweetwater 2 and Campbell County are part of a coalition of roughly a dozen districts, and Little-Kaumo said that other members of the group were considering resolutions that would clear the way for future lawsuits.

Coe and Rep. David Northrup said last week that the actions by the school districts weren’t a surprise, given districts’ litigious history in Wyoming. On Monday, lawmakers began early discussions on potential replacements for the current evidence-based model, which determines how much each district receives for different things, like materials and staff, per attending student.

Any replacement would have to pass constitutional muster. Michael O’Donnell, a special assistant attorney general who represented the state during past education lawsuits, explained that he can defend the current system in court. If lawmakers chose to switch to a new model, they must be aware that it would have to be defensible because a legal battle seemed imminent.

Kinskey talked about recent research that he said showed teacher effectiveness was the most important factor in a child having a successful education.

“How do we make that the focus of the model and sustain it constitutionally and move away from a preoccupation with dollars?” he asked.

O’Donnell said he could defend Kinskey’s concept, as well as others briefly mentioned by lawmakers. But he neatly summarized the problems facing legislators and educators going forward as they sought to re-tool school funding here.

“What Sen. Kinskey describes is, I believe, a perfectly defensible approach to education,” he said. “What I don’t know that Sen. Kinskey has is consensus among everyone in this room that that is the way to do it. ... I don’t really have an answer for you on how to do it. That comes to your collective wisdom.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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