This week, 9 school district superintendents met with Governor Mead to contend that the state has underfunded its K-12 schools. While Wyoming ranks near the top of the pack when it comes to per-student funding, this coalition of districts says that funding has not been properly adjusted for inflation each year—and the shortages have meant cutting crucial programs in some districts. But some lawmakers say it’s more complicated than that.
At Tongue River Elementary School in Ranchester, Becky Burtis is reading to a room full of 22 third-graders. This is not an ideal class size. The state mandates a student-to-teacher ratio of 16 to 1 for kindergarten through third grade, but Principal Deb Hoffmeier says that’s not possible here anymore.
“Our population has really grown—and the number of teachers has dropped, so we’ve dropped about five teachers in the past four years,” Hoffmeier says.
So, instead of three third-grade classrooms, there are two—and they have a lot of kids in them. This school is in Sheridan County School District One, one of the nine districts urging Wyoming to reinstate a yearly inflation-based adjustment for school funding.
That coalition met with Governor Matt Mead Tuesday to push for this so-called “external cost adjustment”—or ECA. The Legislature hasn’t provided this adjustment—at least not explicitly—for the past four years.
Superintendent Marty Kobza says that’s led to cuts as districts struggle to keep up with the rising costs of everything from heating to textbooks.
“Propane is a significant thing,” says Kobza. “Curriculum materials, as we transition to the Common Core new standards—purchasing those resource materials. Sometimes it’s textbooks, sometimes it’s software, sometimes it’s a 1-to-1 initiative. Those kinds of things get more expensive all of the time.”
Kobza says the lack of an ECA means all of Wyoming’s 48 districts lost out on about $151 million in the past three years. It’s not much compared to the billions the state has spent operating schools during that time—but Kobza says districts have come to depend on it.
“We don’t have the capacity or capability to absorb costs,” says Kobza. “We run very tight ships already. So there aren’t places to go to find money to help protect those programs for kids in the classroom.”
The coalition surveyed nearly all of the Wyoming’s school districts. More than 70 percent say the lack of an ECA has affected the quality of education they can provide. Eighty-six percent say they’ve given no raises—or inadequate ones—since 2010.
“Our teachers are on a freeze for the third year,” says Fletcher Turcato, Superintendent at Carbon County School District One. He says jobs will be lost if the Legislature continues to hold back on the inflation adjustments.
“Eighty percent of a district’s budget is in teachers and salaries,” Turcato says. “If they do not honor that, it’s going to affect achievement and basically you’re going to have students that are going to be coming out of high school that do not have 21st century skills.”
Every five years, the state establishes a baseline for quality education and determines how much money schools need to provide it—in a process called recalibration. The costs of goods and labor can rise in the years in-between recalibrations, so the ECA is used to make sure those baseline needs are covered.
Senate floor majority leader Phil Nicholas says the main reason the ECA hasn’t been granted in recent years is because the Legislature had already given schools more than what was required.
“There was a belief that the schools were adequately funded and maybe overfunded and there was no requirement to add inflation,” Nicholas says.
But Nicholas says that the extra funding was provided so that schools could put in extra programs above and beyond that baseline for quality education established and paid for by the state—like extra foreign language classes or new technology.
It gets tricky because districts control their spending locally, and they don’t always use the funds for their intended purpose. For example, if districts get extra money to get class sizes down to 13…
“The districts aren’t required to supply that classroom of 13, they just got more money to do it,” Nicholas says.
But, he says if legislators want those extra funds to be used as intended, they’ve got to figure in inflation to cover base costs—and that’s done through the ECA.
Nicholas also notes that the state helps school districts’ bottom lines in other ways. The state covers about 80 percent of school employee health care costs, for example—even as premiums rise.
“You have to be cautious because the overall rates of inflation contemplate things that we actually do pass through—through retirement increases, through healthcare costs and other areas—so it is not a stagnant amount,” Nicholas says.
Tim Kirven is an attorney in Buffalo who represented school districts in past school funding litigation. He says, while the school funding system may be complicated, the E.C.A. requirement is clear-cut.
“You can’t simply say well, ‘it’s in the salary increase we did over here—or a health care benefit that we put over here,’” Kirven says. “That’s just not really the way the system was designed. The system was designed based upon a cost-based model. And that has to be—in accordance with the Supreme Court of the state of Wyoming—adjusted for inflation.”
The debate will continue later this month, when the coalition testifies before the Legislature’s education and appropriations interim committees. Both committees will make recommendations on if and how the inflation adjustment should be made.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.