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First Day of School

Natrona County High School students listen during their first music class of the semester in September 2016.

Wyoming school districts would lose 5 percent of the money in their state-provided block grant by the end of the decade under a heavily amended bill that has passed the Senate and been received by the House.

The measure, Senate File 165, is a substitute bill that’s markedly different from its predecessor. It now would cut the block grant funding given to districts by 2.5 percent for the 2018-19 school year and 5 percent by the 2019-2020 school year, as well as freeze transportation and special education spending at 2011-12 and 2015-16 levels, respectively.

The bill represents one of the most wide-ranging attempts in the Legislature to address an education funding crisis that could hit $400 million annually in the coming years. The situation is the product of a prolonged downturn in the energy economy that’s also crippled Wyoming’s ability to pay for school construction and maintenance.

Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican and the bill’s sponsor, told fellow lawmakers this week that something needed to be done about the deficit in this session.

“I don’t want to run this thing at 80 mph in a couple of years because we’re not going to be able to stop,” he said. “We’re going to go over the cliff. We’ve got to do what is necessary.”

It’s unclear how much money the bill would save or cut, but Republican Sens. Hank Coe and Charles Scott, speaking Monday about an amendment to the bill, said it would likely be more than $60 million.

The percentage cuts to the block grant are new to the measure and comply with what some superintendents and local districts have been requesting. For instance, Natrona County School District Superintendent Steve Hopkins said late last month that his school board preferred percentage cuts, rather than tweaks to individual parts of the larger block grant.

That way, he said, local districts could decide how to use the money.

Those percentage reductions would also only kick into effect if legislation hadn’t been enacted to either recalibrate or change the funding model for public education. So the 5 percent reduction that would hit in the 2019-2020 school year would not happen if schools’ funding was recalibrated before that academic year started.

Recalibration typically takes place every five years, and it last occurred in 2015. The state hires consultants who examine the funding model for public education here and tell lawmakers how much money districts need for certain areas, like classroom sizes.

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There are other notable differences between the original bill and its substitute. Originally, the bill would have frozen special education spending at the average level for the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. Superintendents have expressed concern in recent weeks about what a freeze to special education spending would mean given federal requirements.

But the new measure appears to address that concern. It would authorize Medicaid reimbursement for special education expenses, would allow state superintendent Jillian Balow to adjust the amount as necessary and would further appropriate $5 million to ensure federal standards are met.

Currently, Wyoming is the only state that doesn’t receive federal reimbursements for special education funding, Scott said earlier this week. He added that federal rules dictate that any money given from Medicaid must supplement, not replace, state funding. But because Wyoming has for years paid 100 percent of districts’ special education costs, any usage of federal dollars would inherently replace state money.

However, he said, because the state is reverting to special education costs of previous years, when costs were lower than current levels, there’s now room for Wyoming to be within the rules, receive federal money and save funds.

The new bill would also try to cut down on the use of “ghost teachers.” Coe said there were hundreds of unfilled teaching positions, funding for which was used elsewhere by districts. The bill would reduce funding to the actual number of teachers and staff employed in the district.

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The previous version of the bill called for cutting salaries for district administrators, principals and assistant principals while also appropriating funds to encourage districts to offer early retirement. Neither of those provisions are in the version of the bill that passed the Senate.

Both versions of the bill would cut funding for instructional facilitators, which serve as teachers for teachers on the district level. The latest version would cut state funding for the position to 45 percent of the cost in the next school year, then reduce it again to 30 percent in the following years.

On Monday, Coe said many public comments suggested targeting instructional facilitators’ funding. But doing so is tricky, he said: They’re part of the consultant-built model, so cutting too deep could land the state in court.

A notable holdover between the two versions is the temporary nature of the cuts. Sen. Drew Perkins, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said last week the goal of the bill is to make reductions until the funding model for public schools can be re-calibrated.

Senate File 165 would create a committee to do just that; it would consist of five members of the House and five from the Senate. The lawmakers would “undertake a study” and review education and its funding model in Wyoming to “determine if modifications are necessary to ensure the model remains effective and cost-based in light of changing conditions and modifications to law.”

Coe stressed that the recalibration provision is an essential part of the bill.

“That is the most important thing we’re going to do,” the Cody Republican said.

The bill passed its third reading of the Senate by a vote of 27 to three.

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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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