CHEYENNE — To stay out of court, Wyoming legislators must tiptoe this year when they tinker with the state’s K-12 funding scheme.
A misstep could result in a string of lawsuits, ending up before the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The state’s high court can get pretty stern with the Legislature when dealing with the education of Wyoming kids.
Consider this: “All other financial considerations must yield until education is funded.”
That quote is from what is known as Campbell One, a state Supreme Court opinion issued in 1995 that tossed the state on its ear.
The lawsuit concerning the constitutionality of the public finance system then in effect eventually involved nearly all the education groups and many school districts in the state.
In the end, the supreme court tossed out the state’s school foundation financing system as well as its academic program.
“The Legislature,” the Chief Justice Michael Golden wrote, “must first design the best educational system by identifying the proper educational package each Wyoming student is entitled to have whether she lives in Laramie or in Sundance.”
“The cost of that educational package must then be determined and the Legislature must then take the necessary action to fund that package, described as the “constitutional basket” of quality educational goods and services.”
Notice all the “musts.”
The 1995 ruling, I think, was so demanding and harsh because the Legislature had not followed the supreme court’s recommendation in a lawsuit in 1980 filed by Washakie County schools.
Both court rulings caused a lot of whining by legislators who worked on education for years and believed the state was spending plenty of money on public schools.
But after the Golden’s 1995 opus, they went to work and made some drastic changes to meet the court’s mandate. But not enough. There were other lawsuits over the years. It wasn’t until 2008 that the supreme court finally said the Legislature had established a constitutional financial system and withdrew its oversight authority.
What evolved was the block grant system the state has today. It replaced the old enormously complicated classroom unit value system.
The Legislature this year, whenever it does meet, will have a bill to consider that would cut $100 million in spending from the state’s block grant program.
The draft bill also calls for an increase in the state sales and use tax for the supports of K-12 schools.
The bill was passed in late December during a two day virtual meeting of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration as the Legislature faced an educational funding hole of hundreds of millions of dollars.
School officials testified about the damage the cuts will cause particularly with the state’s drop in K-12 enrollment this year. That enrollment or ADM (average daily membership) determines the amount of money the districts will receive in the state block grant.
Steve Core, chairman of the Sweetwater County No. 2 Board of Trustees at Green River, said the cut will pare more than $3 million from the district’s revenue.
Since 8% of the budget goes for people, he said the district is looking at cutting 37 employees from the payroll.
“Remember the Campbell case and the Wyoming Constitution,” he told the committee during the Zoom meeting
Given the political makeup of the new Legislature, it is likely to embrace the cuts but not the tax increase.
Is there wiggle room in Campbell One for cuts like this? Sen. Charles Scott of Natrona County, who will head the Senate Education Committee this year, says yes. And so have other legislators.
Scott said he believes that while the courts still will not tolerate big disparities in funding between school districts — which sparked the original storm of lawsuits beginning in 1980 — they will tolerate less than the best possible in times of financial distress.
“We may get sued,” he said last week in a telephone interview. ”but judges are not stupid. They know times are hard.”
Joan Barron is a former capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or firstname.lastname@example.org