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Wyoming Legislature looks to open UW, public schools to potential budget cuts
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Wyoming Legislature looks to open UW, public schools to potential budget cuts

School funding

Parents arrive to collect their children as the students are released from Park Elementary School in January in Casper. Lawmakers are moving to give Gov. Mark Gordon more authority to make budget cuts to the state's education system.

CHEYENNE -- The Wyoming Senate on Friday approved a pair of amendments to a wide-ranging COVID-19 relief package that, if adopted, would give Gov. Mark Gordon broad authority to transfer millions of dollars in funding from the University of Wyoming and the state’s K-12 education system to help balance the budget.

The amendments, both of which were passed by wide margins, do not necessarily guarantee that cuts will be coming to either public schools or the university. However, they would grant the governor a significant amount of leeway to reduce funding levels in two of the state’s most expensive systems at a time where state revenues are projected to decline by catastrophic levels over the coming year.

In the University of Wyoming’s case, those reductions could be up to 25 percent of its budget, though the legislation does not mandate any cuts need to be taken.

“This is not a pleasant priority for us,” said Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan. “But I believe voters expect us to do what needs to be done.”

The amendments coincide with a directive to agency heads from the governor’s office earlier this month to begin prepping for significant budget cuts in an attempt to respond to losses in revenue tied to COVID-19. 

While the amendments would likely be used to cut education funding, lawmakers also adopted language to allow schools across the state to increase the amount of money kept in their reserves with significant restrictions on what that funding could be used for: an effort lawmakers said could be used to prevent cuts to teachers as local revenues continue to languish. 

Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetter, however, criticized both amendments, writing in an email that “both of these amendments would really hurt education in Wyoming.” 

While the decision to open the door to budget cuts was met with plenty of reluctance, most members of the Senate said they recognized the state’s looming financial situation would likely have required major cuts to education down the line regardless.

“The sooner we start, the less painful the process is going to be,” said Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper. 

The amendment is not the first attempt to give the state the ability to cut school budgets in the wake of COVID-19. Earlier this week, officials in the governor’s office said the state could pursue a waiver from the federal government to reduce the state’s education budget under the conditions of the CARES Act. Last week, the Natrona County School District said it was bracing for cuts ranging between $6 million and $23 million per year as a result of the COVID-19 economic fallout, the larger amount equivalent to more than 10 percent of the district’s general fund budget.

However dire the state’s revenue situation was, some lawmakers -- like Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne -- suggested that the last-minute decision to put education funding on the chopping block was a rushed one, and urged her fellow lawmakers to take on the subject at a time where more members of the public had an opportunity to comment.

“No one is under any illusion we’re in any other type of situation,” she said. “But can it be done better if we hold off until June and do it then? I think so.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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