Watching the legislative haggling over education funding has been a roller coaster ride for teachers and others worried about their jobs.
Some educators wondered why they’ve been subjected to it, even before education funding was cut in the last hours of the session.
Late Friday evening, the House and Senate finally reached a compromise on an omnibus education bill. The bill cuts education funding by $34.5 million starting in the 2017-2018 school year. It did not identify or create any new funding sources for schools.
Instead, the legislation establishes the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration and gives it broad authority to study and revise the method of financing Wyoming’s public schools, including eliminating the existing “education resource block grant model.”
The committee will consider increasing and diverting revenue and investment income, using “unobligated revenues” and reducing spending further. The committee will put together legislation for the 2018 budget session.
Don Dihle, business manager for the Campbell County School District, said many educators believe there’s a reason the Legislature cut funding but refused options to generate more revenue for the schools this session.
“A lot of us think that this economic downturn is probably an excuse for some people who wanted to cut education funding to have an opportunity to do that,” he said.
The Legislature is insensitive to what they’re cutting, said Nicole Bolton, director of human resources for Sweetwater School District No. 1 in Rock Springs.
“I would like to see some of these people who are proposing these cuts come down to these districts and see what people do,” she said. “To many of them it’s just a number. They don’t put kids’ faces to it.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow defended the state’s instructional facilitators program, which she said produces results for students. Legislators should be “thinking as carefully about divesting in education as we did about investing in education,” she said. The bill passed Friday sharply reduces funding for instructional facilitators.
In Rock Springs, a task force has been looking for the most acceptable ways to operate with less. The 45-person team includes principals, administrators, students, teachers, and community members. Its meetings were facilitated by former state senator Bernadine Craft. Some of its findings imply big changes are coming for students, parents and teachers not only in Rock Springs but across the state.
The task force came up with ideas that included closing an elementary school, reducing substitute teacher salaries and paid leave for staff, moving to a four-day school week and changing the start time for kindergarten classes. The task force, however, was trying to meet a $3.7 million deficit, which district administrators predict from reduced enrollment and reductions imposed by the Legislature during the 2016 budget session. The solutions considered did not confront the additional $34.5 million cut, statewide, that the Legislature adopted Friday.
Discussing the proposed changes in the district was difficult, education officials involved said.
“It’s an emotional time, because whenever you talk about changing anything with the school it impacts the whole community,” said Kelly McGovern, the district’s superintendent. “People are always tied to a school in one way or another.”
Will Sweetwater mothball a school?
One of the biggest proposed changes was mothballing Lincoln Elementary School. The school was selected mainly because of maintenance problems the state has not paid to fix, McGovern said. Moving the school week from five to four days was discussed. One rural school with only 175 students has had a four-day week since 2012.
The reaction to applying that model to larger schools was mixed during community listening sessions, McGovern said, with about half of the community in favor of it and half opposed.
“A four-day week would hugely impact our parents and our businesses around town,” she said, but there is no certainty on how the change would affect student achievement.
The district hopes to avoid laying off staff, McGovern said. If Lincoln Elementary does close, staff on one-year contracts would be replaced, she said, as the district moved long-term staff from Lincoln into other positions in the district. The district will know more about the steps they’ll take after a board meeting this month, she said.
The district put together a website to catalogue the process and the task force’s conclusion.
McGovern, and other Rock Springs officials said they were proud of the community engagement process used to find the $3.7 million in reductions. They engaged parents and community members to identify the best choices possible, they said, and hope to have time to implement cuts in the most gradual and least harmful manner they can.
For example, if Lincoln Elementary does close, the district will host community activities over the summer. Then, McGovern said, the students who are moving schools can get to know their new classmates and be “sitting by a friend on the bus” come the first day of class.
She does not think the Legislature has taken as careful a tack. At this point, the district has not been able to model the cuts imposed from Cheyenne, given the fluidity of bills in the session, she said. She is worried the cuts will be too steep and have sharp affects across the state.
“If we have to start laying people off and closing things, the trickle effects are going to be devastating across the Wyoming economy,” she said.
The House and Senate struggled to come up with a comprehensive education solution. The Senate staunchly refused to consider any new revenue sources, and wanted only to cut education budgets. The compromise came late on Friday, the session’s last day.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out there that would say the problem’s been solved,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss said. The two chambers failed to agree over revenue, and Rothfuss said the problem won’t be solved until that side of the education funding question is discussed.
While the newly created committee can propose revenue-raising bills, this session has proven that passing tax increases will be an uphill battle. Rothfuss was unsure what will make the tax-adverse Legislature reach a point where it can address revenue. “It should’ve already gotten to that point,” he said, given the scale of the crisis.
Under law, school districts must inform teachers whose contracts will not be renewed by April 15, McGovern said. The rule leaves only six weeks from the session’s adjournment to make decisions on staff necessitated by the $34.5 million in cuts.
In Teton County, Keith Gingery, the clerk of the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, said he does not think cuts would affect teachers. The cuts, he said, would come “nowhere near a classroom. We’ll [cut other areas] before we get to a classroom and teachers.”
he Legislature agreed to pay for a new elementary school in Jackson estimated to cost $29 million. “I can handle a cut if they’re going to ship us $29 million to build a new school,” Gingery said.
Senate Majority Leader Chris Rothfuss sees it happening differently in most districts across the state. Districts will cut “where most of the money is,” Rothfuss said, “which is teacher salaries.”
Legislative ‘finding’ used to justify cuts?
The Senate initially added an amendment to the House’s omnibus education bill that frustrated some education officials. Called a “legislative finding,” the amendment cited a 2015 audit by a private legislative consultant that stated student achievement has not reflected increases in education funding. The amendment was removed during negotiations on the last day of the Legislature.
“Part of it I was a little bit offended about,” said Ken Decaria, government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association. The amendment was little more than legal cover for the Legislature in case the school districts or another entity choose to challenge the constitutionality of the cuts in court, he said.
As the result of a series of state supreme court cases in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Legislature is constitutionally required to make education funding a priority.
Even the “legislative finding” amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R, SD-23, Gillette), said he did not think the findings were accurate. The state has outstanding standardized test scores, he said. The Legislature’s legal counsel recommended they add the amendment, he said.
Wasserburger, who formerly taught in Gillette, considers a lawsuit inevitable as the Legislature continues reducing funding of the education model. He pushed the amendment in preparation for litigation, even if he disagreed with what it said.
“I still have to defend the state,” he said. “And do what’s best for K-12.”
Wasserburger does not think this first round of reductions will damage the state’s education performance, he said. “The cuts weren’t that onerous.”
Rothfuss said the finding helped the Senate justify cuts. It was part of generally poor messaging from the Legislature to educators this session, he said, meaning lawmakers’ attitude toward education had shown a lack of appreciation for the job being done by Wyoming teachers.
“We vilify educators as a justification for making cuts and feeling comfortable with that,” he said. “We have to point out that the educators are failures so that when we make cuts, everyone can say well that’s reasonable because the educators are failures.”
Dihle, the business manager for the Campbell County School District No. 1, said the Legislature has ignored other options to fund the schools.
He referenced the decision to continue to pour money into the state’s inviolate savings account, the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. Money also continues to sit in the rainy day fund, he said. Also, he said, the state remains without bond debt and the state treasurer has billions invested in various accounts.
“There are [lawmakers] who have the belief that Wyoming education is overfunded and it needs to be cut,” he said.
The 2017 session isn’t the first time the Legislature has shortchanged the state’s education system, Dihle said. In an op-ed published in the Casper Star-Tribune, he referenced diversions of millions of dollars by the Legislature in 2006 and 2009.
“The opposite of saving for a rainy day, the Legislature’s actions intercepted and removed a grand total of $2.7 billion of taxpayer dollars, plus accumulated interest, from the School Foundation Account, assuring this fund would be nearly empty when a downturn in the economy occurred,” he wrote.
Dihle also asserted that education has lost money because the Legislature has failed to adjust its funding model for inflation. From the 2010 school year until the 2014 school year, the Legislature did not make adjustments for inflation he said.
He estimates the total loss in funding at $155 million. The estimate was “back of the envelope,” the business manager said, but most likely conservative.
Inflation leaves the school districts with less buying power when utility, computer equipment and gasoline prices go up. The increase in basic operational costs means fewer funds for things that could benefit students’ learning, such as offering competitive salaries to draw good teachers, Dihle said.
It’s essential for the state to be able to offer competitive salaries for teachers, Dihle said. He suggested a young teacher would not move to Lusk, or Wright if the salary was the same or only slightly better than a job offer in Fort Collins, or Boulder, Colorado, cities with thriving social scenes and more attractions for young people.
Total cuts for 2017-18 school year
Last week, Decaria noted that the Legislature already imposed a $6 million cut during the 2016 budget session. They then slashed another $34.5 million in the supplemental budget this session. The combination means districts will be dealing with $40 million in cuts.
The Rock Springs district and others around the state also will see reductions from a drop in enrollment. McGovern and her task force project that falling enrollment, plus the 2016 cuts, will reduce its state funding by $3.7 million. Now they’ll have to consider the $34 million statewide reduction.
Speaking Friday morning, before the compromise on the House omnibus bill, Harshman said he believed the Legislature would adjourn better prepared to address education funding next time it convened. Many aspects of the problem were addressed, he said, and lawmakers are leaving far better informed.
“To solve any problem you have to first identify there is a problem,” he said.
On Monday, Harshman returned to his regular job as a football coach and teacher at Natrona County High School. He said he hoped educators would continue to stay involved in the process as the Legislature tried to solve the funding problem for the long term.
Lawmakers had to make hard choices, he said, and also deliver straightforward messages to education officials around the state. He did not want teachers to worry about their jobs, and hoped that cuts would be able to be made through attrition and without hurting hardworking Wyoming teachers. “You don’t need to cause harm for no reason,” he said.