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Lawsuit over state funding of public schools goes to trial

A man with white hair and a short white beard looks into the camera. Behind him is a brick wall that has "Wyoming Education Association" written on it.
David Dudley
Wyoming Public Media
Grady Hutcherson, president of the Wyoming Education Association, outside of the organization's headquarters in downtown Cheyenne, May 23, 2024

The trial has begun for the Wyoming Education Association's (WEA) lawsuit against the state of Wyoming.

The Association, a service organization that advocates for its 3,000 active members across the state, alleges that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund the state's public K-12 education system.That’s even as the state has increased its per-student funding each year from $1,234 in 1980 to $16,751 in 2022.

WEA President Grady Hutcherson, a teacher who spent 24 years in the classroom before being elected as the president of the WEA, said it wasn't enough to keep pace with inflation and rising costs.

Hutcherson was the first witness to take the stand Monday morning. When asked about the connection between nutrition and a student's ability to learn when hungry, he said that the two were not conducive to academic success. Hutcherson added that he'd seen a seven-year-old student digging through the trash at school to find something to eat.

It's moments like that, Hutcherson told Wyoming Public Radio's David Dudley, that led to the lawsuit.

Wyoming Public Radio reached out to members of the Legislature, who declined to comment on the case.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

David Dudley: What was the action, or the lack of action, that compelled you to file a lawsuit?

Grady Hutcherson: I think the fact that the problem has existed year after year. And it finally got to the point where we started seeing a negative impact on our students across the state, in terms of the education they were receiving, as well as the impact that has had on our education professionals across the state. We used to rank very near the top in terms of salaries and being able to attract and retain educators. And we've lost that advantage. We now know that there's a huge struggle in recruiting and retaining educators across the state. So those were a couple of components that really caused us to have no other choice, but to ensure that the state does what is right and what our students deserve.

A chart displaying student performances over the years 2016-2023
Courtesy of the Wyoming Department of Education.

DD: Can you offer an example or two of what that lack of funding looks like on the ground?

GH: There are many areas where we can look at specific examples and see how the underfunding has had negative impacts on students. Particularly, there are districts who used to provide a variety of types of programs, and those districts can no longer afford to offer those programs. So there have been programs that have, in essence, shut down or have been eliminated in districts across the state.

I think another real compelling example is that from the year 2010 to 2022, the average teacher salary only increased $604. So when you're an educator or education support professional and your wages aren't keeping up with inflation, for example, sometimes you're forced and have no other choice but to leave or to look for other options of places for employment.

One of the other components within the lawsuit has to do with capital construction, which is an interesting issue, because we do know that there are communities across the state with beautiful new schools. But then there are also those districts who have old and dilapidated school buildings, and those haven't been replaced yet. I think about whether it's springtime or back to school, and when the temperatures are hot outside, for example. I have colleagues who regularly tell me about their classrooms getting to be in the upper 80 degrees because of old buildings that lack proper ventilation and air conditioning. So, I mean, those types of impacts are real and they're affecting our students as well as education professionals on a daily basis.

DD: What about this notion that the Wyoming Education Association is pushing for these funds to fund special programs?

GH: I appreciate that question. You know, I had the good fortune and was in the classroom for 24 years. And I always tried to think about the student as a whole. There's the academic component, certainly. But I also know that if I have students who are struggling with emotional or mental health issues, very little learning is taking place until those basic needs are met.

In my opinion, there's no way that somebody could argue that the social and mental health and wellness of a student isn't part of [the] education that we provide. It's unfortunate that some of the national rhetoric is trying to paint a different picture. Unfortunately, we know in the state of Wyoming, we regularly are among the highest in the nation with our youth suicide rates. We know that post-pandemic, the issue of mental health and wellness – not just for students, but also for education professionals – is of significant concern and needs to be addressed.

And, as a part of the lawsuit, there's not adequate funding to provide the services that are needed for our students so that they can ultimately be most successful in their learning and in the classroom.

Providing counselors and mental health support to students, I would say, is a basic need of not just every student, but every human being. So we need to address that and we can't look the other way. And I think it's unfortunate that we want to try and use national rhetoric to say that that's some kind of national program that we're pushing. It's based on what our students need.

DD: What about the recent budget adjustment that the legislature passed, roughly $70 million for the school year is 23-24? How does that impact schools across the state and also the lawsuit?

GH: So, that's the funding that was provided this past session for the external cost adjustment, which is what we are arguing they have not done regularly. So we're very grateful and appreciative that this past session, they did provide that external cost adjustment. However, because of the fundamental flaws that exist within the funding model, by providing that external cost adjustment, it still doesn't provide for a cost-based model. The example I'll use to maybe help people understand what I mean by that is if you look at the model, they have a base salary that they use for determining what teacher salaries should be in the district. But the amount that they use in the model is approximately $7,000 less than what districts are actually having to pay. So there's that huge disparity between what's actually happening versus what we see in the model. And that external cost adjustment, as I said, it's greatly appreciated as a step in the right direction. But it still is not enough to provide for that cost-based education that our students deserve.

DD: Thank you, President Hutcherson. We've been speaking about the Wyoming Education Association's lawsuit against the state of Wyoming.

GH: Thank you so much.

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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