As part of a federal stimulus released to cover costs associated with the coronavirus, the state of Wyoming has received tens of millions of dollars to help schools fill in holes created by the pandemic.
But the dollars come with a catch: For the next two years, the state has to maintain the funding level its schools have received for the past three years. In Wyoming, where the extraction industries are in free-fall, that is a particularly thorny proposition. Indeed, state projections suggest that the funding deficit for schools could top $500 million in the coming years.
Under the CARES Act — the massive stimulus bill that is sending the education money to Wyoming — the state Department of Education will receive roughly $32 million, a state official said. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office will get $4.7 million to dole out to schools, universities and colleges, and the University of Wyoming and the Community College Commission will each get more than $6 million.
At the minimum, high-level discussions of such reductions seem a certainty. Gordon told the university to prepare to pare down its budget significantly, for instance.
To get around the provision in the CARES Act that requires no spending cuts, the state and Education Department would have to file for a waiver with the federal government to allow them out of the provision, said Lachelle Brant, Gordon’s education policy adviser. The waiver would allow states to accept federal funds and still cut education if the state “experienced a precipitous decline in financial resources.” The waiver itself is not a definite acknowledgement that funds will be cut, but it does clear the way for reductions.
Dicky Shanor, the chief of staff of the Education Department, said no decisions on whether to file a waiver had been made. He said the state budget and governor’s office’s approval is necessary to accept the federal funds, though he anticipates the state would seek the money from Washington. That, then, would require a waiver, should the state decide to cut funding later on.
“I don’t know if or when the state would seek a waiver to the maintenance of effort due to a precipitous decline in financial resources,” Shanor said, “but certainty the evidence suggests that we’re currently and will continue to experience a precipitous decline in financial resources.”
The application for the funds is June 1, Shanor added, and the Education Department is preparing those documents. He said the agency was still awaiting guidance as to whether the waiver should be included.
Officials denied that the waiver was being prepared to directly clear the way for cuts, though that is its apparent purpose.
“We are extremely early in the process and our decision to submit a waiver is an attempt to provide the state with maximum flexibility,” Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman told the Star-Tribune via email. “It’s premature to make any assumptions as to how this relates to education funding in Wyoming going forward.”
“The (Education Department) has not been informed by the Legislature or the Governor’s office that there will be cuts to K-12 education funding,” agency spokeswoman Michelle Panos added.
Brant demurred when asked if the waiver implied looming cuts.
“I don’t know if I could speak to that,” she said. “I think as we all know, with the change in natural resources, that the funding that comes from those is definitely going to be less. It’ll definitely have an impact.”
It is true that there are no defined plans to cut education spending. But various lawmakers have been trying to do so for several years; the current education deficit is in excess of $200 million, with the new economic free-fall projected to compound that already difficult situation.
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