Sen. Charlie Scott is again proposing that individual school districts shoulder the responsibility of building new schools, as state leaders continue to search for a way to fill the funding gap left by the loss of coal lease bonuses.
In a bill nearly identical to one he sponsored last year, the Natrona County Republican is backing a constitutional amendment that would require the state’s 48 school districts to raise funds from within their own communities — via bond issues or other sources — to fund school-related construction. The move would shift the burden away from state coffers, which have shouldered it since a state Supreme Court decision in 2001.
Since that case, one of the four Campbell County decisions that radically reshaped how Wyoming funds its education system, the state has relied heavily on coal lease bonuses to fund more than $2 billion in school construction. But in the wake of the recent bust, which saw the last of the coal lease bonus monies, lawmakers have been searching for a replacement.
Scott argued that the system should return to what it was before Campbell. Each district — and its residents — is responsible for deciding to fund new schools.
“Frankly my experience with that was that over the years, that was a pretty good system because when the schools really needed something, people would vote for it,” Scott told the Star-Tribune on Friday. “When schools had excesses, were asking for things they didn’t need or were fancy-gold-plating it, voters would vote it down.”
The constitutional amendment — officially SJ9 — would require bond costs be equalized across districts “so that the needed mill levy does not exceed what the mill levy would be if the district had the state average per person assess valuation,” according to the bill.
The proposal would also allow the Legislature to “appropriate funds to relieve hardship.”
Last year, Scott’s bill made it out of the Senate but failed to move past the House’s Education Committee, which has for years been resistant — as is the House at large — to cuts and to shifting the system back to the pre-Campbell era.
Scott said he believed it would be difficult for the bill to go the distance this year, citing the education community’s opposition. Messages left for Brian Farmer, of the Wyoming School Board Association, and Kathy Vetter, of the Wyoming Education Association, were not immediately returned Friday.
“It is a solution we’ve got to take seriously, and I haven’t seen anybody else propose a solution,” the senator said. “We’re going to have to do something. This is a sensible and fair way to do it. The current system, when we were rolling in money, I suppose we could afford it, but it was pure pork barrel.”
Scott’s home school district in Natrona County recently completed a wave of new construction that included major renovations to its two big high schools — Natrona County High and Kelly Walsh — as well the building of a new Roosevelt High, the Pathways Innovation Center, Journey Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and other additions.
Scott said some of the district’s building’s “wouldn’t have been built or would have been built very differently” if the question was put to voters.
“I think Casper is an exhibit — but not the only one,” he said. “There have been a lot of them around the state. I think we’d have gotten a better result if we’d have a local electorate who knew what was going on.”
He said he was “not an enthusiast” of raising a new statewide tax to pay for construction.
“This would ultimately mean that if you voted for more schools for your district, that your taxes would go up,” Scott said. “But you’d have a vote on it.”