CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers unanimously rejected a proposal to change the state’s education funding model Tuesday, ending a nine-month, roughly $800,000 review that set out to examine an education system facing a significant funding shortfall.
The review — known as recalibration — ended with decisive, if gentle, rejection. Lawmakers praised the proposal crafted by Denver-based consultants Augenblick, Paliach and Associates. Sen. Hank Coe, who chaired the committee that oversaw recalibration, told the consultants they shouldn’t walk away feeling they had failed. Speaker Steve Harshman said the process was a learning experience. Sen. Bill Landen called it a good exercise.
But at the end of the day, “it went down zero to 10,” Coe said.
For him, the proposal’s price tag — at least $70 million more than what the state now pays — was too high and he was disappointed in the final product. Harshman and Sen. Chris Rothfuss said the proposal’s cost of living adjustment — known as the regional cost adjustment — would hurt too many districts. Landen said he didn’t want to bring a new model to a legislative session that meets in just two weeks.
So they, and the six other members of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, rejected the proposal. Lawmakers will continue working with its current legislative funding model as they move into the coming session.
In their closing remarks before the proposal was rejected, multiple lawmakers cited the regional cost adjustment as their primary concern.
It’s essentially a cost of living adjustment to provide equity between school districts: It’s more expensive to live and work in Jackson, for instance, than it is to live in Pine Bluffs, so Teton County School District receives money to account for that difference.
But what index would be used for that adjustment has been a repeated point of contention. The consultants’ recommended index, coupled with its broader proposals, would have drastic effects on different districts. For instance, Teton County would lose nearly $5 million compared to what it currently receives. Laramie County School District No. 1 would lose more than $10 million. But Campbell County would gain nearly $11 million.
“Essentially, what the (regional cost adjustment) does, the further away from Yellowstone you get, the less money you get,” Landen said. “With Teton, no question, you’ve got to have a model that’s going to adjust.”
Rothfuss — who has also repeatedly criticized the proposal to increase class sizes — said it would be too expensive to shift how the regional cost adjustment was calculated.
“At this point in time, there’s no way we can politically do that,” he said.
Lawmakers defend process
Despite the unanimous rejection, officials stopped short of calling the entire project pointless. Landen said he would likely still support recalibration knowing that it wouldn’t produce a model. He added that it showed Wyoming’s education spending isn’t outrageous.
During his closing remarks, Rothfuss said much the same.
“Even though the numbers are different here and there, they basically come down to the same expense for the state of Wyoming,” he said. “That tells us for an adequate, high-quality education in the state, this is the right amount of money.”
Brian Farmer, who leads the Wyoming School Boards Association, said it was “absolutely” a good idea to hold recalibration.
“It was necessary to ask some questions, get another look at it and come back with a new set of information,” he added.
Indeed, there are pieces of the proposal that are likely to be resurrected in some form or another, good or bad, going forward. Lawmakers praised the consultants’ recommendations on at-risk students; the consultants proposed spending about $22 million more than what Wyoming now funds, they told lawmakers Tuesday.
Legislators also praised the consultants’ J-curve proposal. Currently, smaller districts can often find themselves teetering on a funding cliff. If a school loses a few students, then they might lose a large chunk of funding. The consultants’ curve would help soften that, officials said.
“We’ve been trying to fix that for four to six years, at least,” Landen said of the cliff effect. The downside of the curve, he added, is that it’s expensive.
Both the curve and the at-risk recommendations may come up in the future, likely in the months after this session, Farmer said.
In any case, recalibration ends with lawmakers no closer to filling the funding shortfall. Already the state has slashed $77 million from schools in recent years, Harshman said. Signs coming from the Senate suggest that there’s more to come. Landen and Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican, are working on a reduction bill, Coe said, though he didn’t know what specifically the proposal targeted.
A bill already approved by the Joint Education Committee would cut nearly $20 million more.
Including that potential cut, the reductions have already been “pretty substantial,” Landen said.
Despite those looming cuts, the outlook for Wyoming education isn’t nearly as gloomy as it was a year ago, when the shortfall was projected to be as much as $400 million a year. The economy is doing better, as recent reports have shown.
Harshman reminded the lawmakers, and educators who watched and listened from a pair of packed rooms, that the sky was no longer falling. He said the state could choose to pick apart small-town Wyoming to cut costs. It could follow the Casper model and close buildings to save money.
“There are 330 schools in this state,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to vote to close 100 of them.”
“I think we can do this. We can. We have options,” he continued. “I’m really optimistic that we’re going to solve this regardless of the model we choose.”