Consultants analyzing Wyoming’s school funding will be directed to search for automatic annual increases in school expenses and consider school district consolidation.
The decisions were made during a contentious meeting of the Legislature’s Management Council Tuesday night. Both observers and some members of the council felt leadership overstepped its bounds, and the legislative process, in making its changes.
The Management Council, which is made up of leadership from both the House and Senate, met in Cheyenne in part to approve an RFP — request for proposals — that will be sent out in search of consultants to review education funding.
The council amended the RFP, adding language that directs the future consultants to study the “sustainability of cost escalators” when determining an adequate level of funding for Wyoming’s public schools.
Other amendments direct the consultants to look at the savings from consolidating school districts or asking school districts to cooperate with each other on certain expenses, like transportation and special education funding.
House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D, HD-13, Laramie) argued it was not the consultants’ job to look at “sustainability.” The consultants should be required to determine how much education will cost, not how the state might pay for it, she said. That job has been assigned to the Revenue Committee and other interim committees.
Senate Majority Leader Drew Perkins (R, SD-29, Casper), who proposed the sustainability amendment, said he wants the consultants to look at those aspects of the model that “automatically” drive costs up each year.
Examples could be automatic increases in the amount of money budgeted for transportation or special education, he told WyoFile Wednesday, though he noted funding for both already has been frozen by the Legislature. He also said the money awarded based on student population could automatically increase to incorporate population growth that may never happen.
Speaker of the House Steve Harshman initially opposed the amendment, but later said he didn’t think consultants would find any automatic increases. “I don’t think there are any,” he said. “I’m not worried about it.”
Ken Decaria, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Education Association, said cost escalators could include things like salary increases for teachers as they gain experience or more education. Teachers pay for educational attainment on their own, he said, with the expectation they’ll see a pay raise later.
The Wyoming State Constitution mandates a quality and equal education for students, Decaria said, and the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled the Legislature must find a way to fund it.
“The Supreme Court didn’t say depending upon resources,” he said, “they said you’ll fund it.”
‘Bending the process’
Consultants are hired as part of the education recalibration process, which the Legislature conducts to determine the cost of education. Last session, the Legislature started recalibration three years earlier than scheduled. Critics contend the early start is an attempt to use recalibration to make cuts in school funding. The process should consider only what a quality education will look like and how much that costs, those critics say.
The language of the RFP lays out what the consultant will be asked to review. Its wording could affect the results of the eventual study.
The RFP before the Management Council had been written by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, a panel created to spearhead the process.
Tuesday night, the Management Council first considered two versions of the select committee’s RFP that had been heavily amended. One set came from the House members of the Management Council and one from its Senate chair. Neither had been made available for public comment.
Eventually, the Management Council chose to adopt the original version, but then changed it. Decaria called the decision “micromanagement.”
“They’ve superseded what they tasked a committee to do,” he said. “If you task this process to especially a select committee, you ought to respect the work that they did.”
The select committee met and drafted the RFP on April 3, Legislative Service Office staffer Matt Wilmarth told the Management Council. During that meeting, the committee took a day’s worth of public testimony from stakeholders in the education system. At the end of the meeting, the select committee voted for LSO to draft the RFP with the language it had adopted.
On April 10, Wilmarth said, the RFP was sent out to the committee members, and adopted via an electronic vote by the lawmakers.
Then, on April 19, Sen. Hank Coe (R, SD-18, Cody), sent the committee a series of proposed amendments to the language of the bill.
At first, Rep. Albert Sommers (R, HD-20, Pinedale) the House chairman of the select committee, said he felt the committee should reject Coe’s amendments. “My immediate reaction as chair was, ‘This is too late. We need to get this out,’” he said. Other House members of the select committee convinced him otherwise. The House then wrote it’s own series of counter amendments, which were emailed to the select committee on April 27, Wilmarth said.
“I don’t know if it was buyer’s remorse or what,” Harshman (R, HD-37, Casper), said of Coe’s after-the-vote amendments. “None of those things have been seen by the public.”
Neither the House nor Senate amendments were posted online prior to the Management Council meeting. Printed copies were delivered to the meeting room for those members of the public in attendance an hour into the meeting.
Some of Coe’s proposed changes were major. One was to strike a paragraph that included language directing the consultant to work “in consultation with stakeholders.” The change could have cut out much of the public, and those most knowledgeable with the state’s education system, Decaria said.
Coe’s amendments also included a list of funding questions the consultants should address. The list included class sizes, salary levels, retirement funds, special education, teacher bonuses, methods for dealing with increasing or declining student populations, kindergarten and others.
Sen. Ray Peterson (R, SD-19, Cowley), a Management Council member who also serves as chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee, urged them to adopt Coe’s amendments. Peterson said that during the April 3 meeting, Coe had a bad phone line. He was unable to hear “90 percent” of the meeting, Peterson said, and only later realized the language the committee approved. Members of the select committee said the meeting lasted more than six hours.
Coe’s expertise is invaluable, Peterson said, as he is the most experienced member of the select committee. Coe, a former Senate President, has served on the Senate Education Committee since 1993 and is now its chairman.
The long-time senator’s influence on the Management Council was evident to at least one observer Tuesday night. “Everyone was bending over backwards to respect input from Senator Coe,” said Marguerite Hermann, with the League of Women Voters. “I think they bent the process to accommodate him.”
Several Management Council members said they should either adopt the RFP as originally drafted, or send it back to the select committee to rework, in order to not sidestep a committee specifically assigned to a topic. Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) pushed for immediate resolution.
The Legislature is indeed behind schedule for dealing with education funding in the interim period. Dates on the draft RFPs called for it to be released in April, which didn’t happen.
Decaria said he worries the recalibration process will be rushed. “By the time these guys [the consultants] even get started on this we’re gonna be halfway through the interim,” he said.
Receiving a late report from the consultants could cut down on the time legislative committees spend taking public testimony, he said. He worries that with less time, lawmakers will “tend then to rely more on consultants, from wherever, than they do on the citizens of Wyoming.”
Harshman, who has frequently called for a broad, public-input-fueled look at education funding, twice urged the committee to adopt the original RFP without changes. “Really in the spirit of public participation on this I would just move what the select committee brought to us,” he said.
In the end, the Management Council did choose to adopt the original version of the RFP. They then amended it.
“Goes back to the process Mr. Speaker, it really does work,” Bebout said to Harshman.
Along with the cost-escalator language, three other amendments were added. They included directing the consultants to look at the savings from consolidating school districts or asking school districts to cooperate with each other on certain expenses, like transportation, special education and gifted and talented funding. Instead of adopting Coe’s select list of funding items, the Management Council added in a suggestion from the House’s counter amendments that fixed an appendix to the RFP for consultants to review. The appendix included all funding items in the current education model.
The amended RFP was adopted by a vote largely split on party lines. While Harshman voted for it in the end, Democrats on the council opposed it, with the exception of Rep. John Freeman (R, HD-60, Green River).
“I disagree with the process,” said Connolly before the vote. “We did our job a month ago, and that RFP was fully vetted and vetted publicly.”
Harshman said though the process initially concerned him, he thought the RFP ended up better after the council worked on it. He also recognized that time is of the essence moving forward.
“We’re really far behind,” he said.