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Legislature resurrects 'ghost teachers' proposal that would cut school funding
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Legislature resurrects 'ghost teachers' proposal that would cut school funding

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School funding

Parents arrive to collect their children as the students are released from Park Elementary School last month in Casper. A proposal would cut more than $70 million from Wyoming schools by not funding so-called "ghost teachers."

Legislators are again proposing a tightening of school budgets to crack down on what some call “ghost teachers” in a bill that — if passed — would cut education funding by $15 million within three years.

In a bill sponsored by the Senate Appropriations Committee, lawmakers are proposing to limit the money school districts receive for health care insurance to cover the number of employees actually working in districts, rather than the number that the education funding model says should be employed. The bill, which was only filed Wednesday and has yet to be introduced in the Senate, would also limit the amount districts can receive in transportation reimbursement this year.

“Ghost teachers” — so named because they exist in the funding model but not on the ground — have been a frequent target of proposed cuts by legislators in recent years, though no bill has been successful. The phantom staffers are a part of the education funding model, which drives school district funding.

Each of the state’s 48 school districts receives its funding in a block grant from the state. The state uses a funding model to determine how much money should be paid to each district to provide an adequate education for every student. The system pays districts for a model number of teachers but does not require that the district actually employ that number of teachers.

For example, District X may receive funding in its model for 25 teachers. In reality, the district may employ 20 teachers. The state provides the various school boards that oversee Wyoming’s many school districts wide latitude to use their block grants as they deem necessary. Districts frequently employ fewer teachers than they’re allocated; they’ve said they use the extra money to pay better salaries, among other things, to better recruit and retain teachers in a state that may otherwise struggle to lure educators.

But legislators have criticized and targeted these “ghost teachers.” In addition to the state sending money to districts for these nonexistent staffers, the state also provides a steadily rising amount of money each year as health insurance costs go up. Some lawmakers have said that districts don’t need additional money for health insurance for staffers that don’t exist.

Some of these teachers do in fact exist. But they may not be enrolled in the district’s health plan; they may receive their insurance from their spouse’s job, for instance. Still, the district receives an insurance boost for that employee regardless.

Each district is scheduled to get $1,968, $3,853 and $5,926 per full-time employee from the state to cover rising insurance costs over the next three years. Should this bill become law, the state would save $7.3 million this year, $9.2 million next year and $14.6 million in the 2022-2023 school year.

Educators have argued that while they don’t employ the exact number of teachers recommended in the model, the excess money goes to paying higher salaries to keep teachers here. Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said Wednesday that her group opposed the bill and that districts need the money.

Nearly three years ago, the Legislature hired an education consultant to study its funding model and propose an alternative. The company did just that, recommending that the state boost salaries and lower the recommended number of employees to reflect more accurately what districts were doing on the ground. But that didn’t amount to a cut; the proposed model was $70 million more expensive than the state’s old model. The Legislature did not move forward with the proposal.

The bill is the first measure this session that proposes to cut education. The state’s school system is still running a deficit in excess of $200 million, a hole that is being filled by tapping into the Legislature’s hefty piggy bank. Some lawmakers have said education costs need to be reined in as the state looks to tighten its belt overall.

Still, there are two separate efforts in the Legislature to actually increase education funding. The first is the external cost adjustment — essentially an inflation adjustment — that would boost school funding by $38 million over the next two years. While the price tag has drawn criticism from some in the Capitol, other lawmakers — and many educators — have said the Legislature must provide it to comply with the model and avoid running afoul of constitutional requirements.

The second measure is a bill that would remove a cap placed on special education. Before that cap was put in place, the state reimbursed every penny of districts’ special education spending. Those costs regularly chug upward, which is why the Legislature put the cap into place a few years ago to freeze them. But educators warn that putting a ceiling on funding — which they themselves cannot cut because of federal requirements — is putting a strain on the district’s overall budgets, which have been trimmed in recent years. The proposal to kill the cap was supported by the Joint Education Committee, though that does not guarantee approval by the broader Legislature.

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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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