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Laramie County District Court to hear case alleging state underfunds schools

A man teaches a young woman with blonde hair to play guitar
David Dudley
Wyoming Public Media
In this picture, Dean Webster (right) teaches Mesa Winger, a student at Prairie View Community School, to play guitar. Prairie View Community School is housed in the former Chugwater School building in Chugwater, Wyoming.

Laramie County District Court is set to hear a case that accuses the state of inadequately funding schools for more than a decade. The bench trial begins June 3.

Once regarded as a nationwide leader in funding for public education thanks to taxes paid by energy companies, the lawsuit, filed by the Wyoming Education Association in August 2022, accuses Wyoming of failing to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund the state's public education system.

The lawsuit claims some districts have been forced to cut programs like arts and music, as well as after school sports, due to alleged underfunding.

That's just one example of the problems that led to the lawsuit, said Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson. Then there's a statewide struggle to recruit and retain teachers, which Hutcherson attributed, at least in part, to low teacher salaries.

"From the year 2010 to 2022, the average teacher salary only increased $604," said Hutcherson. "When you're an educator, and your wages aren't keeping up with inflation, sometimes you're forced to leave or to look for other options of places for employment."

Additionally, Hutcherson said there are school buildings that aren't fit for educating the state's youth, such as Jackson Hole High School, which had to remove student lockers from the hallways to make room for its growing student population.

"You think about old buildings and just wiring, for example," said Hutcherson. "Back in the day, there were very few things in the classroom to plug in. Now, you think about technology and all of the needs that students and educators have, and those buildings simply aren't designed to provide that."

In a more extreme example, Chugwater School, the county-run public school in Chugwater, struggled financially for years. The school was finally forced to permanently close its doors when members of the community founded Prairie View Community School, a public charter school serving K-12 students. Hutcherson said that public schools are at the heart of cities and towns across Wyoming, regardless of their size.

"If we're not adequately funding education across the state, we'll continue to see fewer opportunities for students," Hutcherson said. "And we'll continue to have a problem recruiting and hiring and having enough teachers in those schools, so that students can learn and grow and develop into their authentic selves.”

Attorneys representing Wyoming said during a recent court appearance that, on the contrary, Wyoming has overpaid its education system for years. Because of that, the attorneys argued, the state shouldn't be held accountable for retroactive damages.

A document shared by the Legislative Service Office showed that between 1979 to 2022, the amount of funding allotted per student increased from $1,234 to $16,751.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said that the case would be heard in Wyoming Supreme Court. The case is scheduled for trial in Laramie County District Court in Cheyenne.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.

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