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Cash-Strapped Legislature Says K-12 Cuts Are Here To Stay

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Credit: AARON SCHRANK/WPR
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The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee met on Tuesday to discuss ways Wyoming can save money on K-12 education amid revenue decline.

Last year, lawmakers went through the school finance recalibration process, which happens every five years. They decided to continue funding education at the same levels they had been, instead of adopting a less costly model that would provide what consultants say are the basics needed to improve educational outcomes in Wyoming.

That model would have saved the state nearly $63 million over the next two years, according to legislative staff.

Committee Chair Hank Coe says the state’s revenue picture demands changes to school funding.

“The future of K-12 funding in 2018, 2019, 2020 is bleak, at best,” says Senator Coe.
“I don’t know how else to say it. We have to be realistic. You see what’s going on at the state level, the Governor’s proposing 8 percent cuts. We have to live within our means as well. If we have to make the cuts here in K-12 funding, we have to make the cuts.”

One of Wyoming’s biggest budget concerns is school construction. That’s funded by coal lease bonuses, a revenue source that is set to dry up in coming years. Lawmakers discussed solutions like boosting energy efficiency in schools.

Lawmakers also heard about the potential cost savings of other changes. For example, staff said if Wyoming’s 48 school districts were consolidated to just 23, the state would save $7.5 million each year.

Representatives from school districts and the Wyoming Education Association urged lawmakers to support rolling back one percent cuts to schools made earlier this year.

But most members of the Joint Education Committee told the educators that their request wasn’t realistic amid declining revenues. Committee Chairman David Northrup, a representative from Powell says he can’t support restoring the cuts.

“Even if I support it, it will not go anywhere in the House,” says Northrup. “The House of Representatives has felt that everybody’s going to bleed, and there’s going to be blood on the floor. K-12 is bleeding the least amount of anybody because of the Campbell decisions.”

Those Wyoming Supreme Court decisions guarantee adequate school funding. Democrat Representative Mary Throne says the state does have enough money to keep education funding steady for the next several years.

“K-12 is a constitutional obligation, and when we do adjust the funding, it has to be done in a constitutional manner,” says Throne. “But the second point and perhaps the more important point is that we have available sources of revenue to cushion this downturn that we’re in and we’re not using them.”

Throne points to the Common School Land Account as one example of a revenue source that could be tapped.

School districts predict that the one percent cuts will be made worse by declining enrollments. The Committee vowed to continue monitoring that.

Enrollment numbers from the most recent school year will be available in September. 

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