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State Education Official Reacts To The Demise Of The School Finance Bill

Wyoming School Boards Association

One of the top priorities of many legislators was to reduce spending for K-12 education. Governor Mark Gordon has mentioned it in his last couple of State of the State messages and the legislature was just a conference committee away from passing a bill to do that. But a major disagreement between the House and Senate over whether there should just be reductions or reductions that included some revenue led to the bill's demise.

It led Casper Senator Charles Scott to claim that the House was a bunch of tax and spend liberals. That overreaction probably won't help future discussions go any smoother, but it's also likely the issue isn't off the table. The good news for school districts is that they won't see cuts this year. Brian Farmer is the Director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck asked him to break down what happened.

Brian Farmer: On the one hand, you have some folks that say we need to get cost and spending under control. On the other hand, you had folks that said, look, we've got a structural deficit, which means the structure needs fixed. And so there was an urgency to create a long term solution, how do we fill what is really a paper gap of revenue? Right now, the legislative stabilization reserve account is the backstop, it fills in any gap in education funding. And so even if you just moved the refuel of the LSRA to education, you move money around on paper, you could change that notion of whether or not there is a deficit. And so, people that have very diverse views or diverse motivations had ideas of let's fix this, let's come up with a long term solution.

Even my association, the Wyoming School Boards Association, weighed in, as to some approaches that could solve this, supporting really that 2016 white paper that said this isn't a one solution deal. This is something that's going to be complex, that's going to have different parts. And that really, the full solution is going to require different measures in order to be successful.

So with everybody having an interest in an outcome, I think there was hope and momentum. And then when federal funds came in, it was thrown a curveball that offered a whole different way of solving a problem. And so it seemed like there was room for success, but we really did know that there were differences between the two houses. And we did know that it was a possibility that they wouldn't come to resolution. So I was both surprised and not surprised.

Bob Beck: Let's talk about a couple of these things. So, you just brought up the federal funds. So that's the money Congress allocated and that's going to go to school districts. Did it not seem to you that there were senators that were frankly mad that that money was going to be available and they couldn't do some of the cuts that they wanted to do?

BF: I think that's absolutely right. In the most recent round of the federal relief, there was something known as a maintenance of effort requirement. So the maintenance of effort said, 'Hey Wyoming, you have to spend the amount of money that you've been spending over the last several years on education.' It really eliminated the possibility of drastic cuts. And there were those that did seem to lament that idea, who seemed intent on cuts in the neighborhood of 10 percent. That was out of the realm of possibility if we were going to take those federal funds.

BB: And then you saw Sen. Scott and the folks on the Senate side of the education conference committee want to also try and limit the use of some of those federal funds as well. So Brian, let me ask you this, with that bill dying, how are districts and school boards going to look at this? Do you think this is delaying the inevitable and they're still going to go ahead and make some cuts? Or did they just get a big reprieve?

BF: In a normal year, in March we're getting the idea of what the legislature has done. So that's when a school district normally does its preliminary budget. In March, you're getting kind of a preliminary budget built around your ideas of what happened in the legislature. Then sometime in April and May you're making your contractual commitments. And you really have a pretty good idea what your budget is going to look like. And then officially in July, you adopt your budget. So we're already behind the eight ball in developing a budget for next year. And districts have kind of been holding their breath. What do we do for next year's budget? We have a statutory deadline of April 15, of notifying folks about contracts. So, we're literally days away from some statutory deadlines, and if we weren't going to have major cuts, there would have been things that districts needed to do right now. So, the immediate result is okay, we can kind of breathe. We can move forward and get through the budget for this year. But there are things that are unknown.

We will have this special solution come July and we could come back to the question of how federal funds are going to be used with regard to education. Education has a limitation on how much it can save. Cities, towns, counties, they don't have limits on their savings accounts. But education does have a limit. So not only is the school district trying to manage its budget, but it's also trying to manage its savings at a time when there are federal dollars that are coming into the budget in order to deal with the effects of the pandemic. And so school districts are kind of managing both of those things saying, 'Okay, let's get our budget good to go for next year. Let's deal with how we're going to expend these federal funds to address the needs of kids of parents.'

You've got unique and unprecedented things happening with regard to student nutrition; federal rules on school lunches changed during the pandemic. And so there's new things being thrown into the equation for how you manage the budget in the school district. And we just don't know what to expect for the long term.

BB: We have talked to a lot of superintendents that were planning cuts, if you're them and you're advising your School Boards Association, do you go ahead and make some of those cuts? Or you hold off?

BF: That's a great question. And ultimately it is a political question that becomes a local decision. There's not going to be one right answer for that. Each community is going to kind of have to look at where they're at. What are their trends in enrollment? What are the needs of their community? I don't think we have boards that advocate spending for spending sake. I just don't believe that that's going to happen. So I think they're going to take a look at what are the needs of their district. And if their trend is looking at something like a declining enrollment, then yeah, it's important to start making a stab at cuts with an eye to the future. I also think that a district planning for the future is going to have to make a delicate balance between its reserve, which is statutorily limited, and its current budget.

But at the end of the day, every one of these districts is a major employer in our Wyoming communities. And so when we're talking about jobs in those communities, we are talking about dollars that circulate back into the community, the economic health of the community. So how do we ultimately do good for the kids that we serve, the students we serve, our very first and most important job, and be a good employer? How do we balance that with the dollars that we received from the state? I think every one of them will be cautious, but I think every one of them is going to have a little different solution to how they do it.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.

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