School Finance — Opaque Or Just Complex?

Feb 16, 2018

Credit Wyoming Department of Education

In his State of the State address, Governor Matt Mead urged the legislature to find ways to stabilize education funding, which relies heavily on revenues from the energy industry. But attempts to diversify the tax base — to protect school finance from booms and busts — have gone nowhere. Lawmakers who oppose generating new revenue sources say school finance is too opaque. They want more time to settle their uncertainty.


An improved outlook for the energy industry has taken some of the heat off, but cuts alone won’t protect school funding from the next time there’s a bust. Senator Hank Coe said this is a complex and ongoing problem.


“This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and our problem funding K-12 education is not going away this year.”


Coe has been trying to corner the gorilla for the last year. He chairs the education committee, as well as the school finance recalibration committee, which spent around $500,000 to examine the school funding model. Consultants hired by the committee told lawmakers not to make cuts.


So the gorilla made appearances over in revenue committee meetings too, where lawmakers considered a wide range of tax options, including raising sales and property taxes to generate more money for education. But most of those ideas died in committee, and the rest have been rejected by the legislature.


Cheyenne Senator Affie Ellis — who serves on the revenue committee — said most tax measures failed because she and others had too many questions about how districts spend state allocated money to ask Wyomingites to pitch in.  


“I need to be able to look them in the eye and say we’ve looked at it every which way possible to make sure your tax dollars are being used efficiently in schools,” said Ellis. “And I don’t think we’ve gotten there.”


Ellis also serves on the Senate Education committee. She said part of what makes school finance murky is the state’s block grant funding model. There’s a formula to determine how much each district should get. But she said once districts get the money, administrators — with approval from their school boards — spend it how they see fit.


“So when we are looking at trying to find ways to make responsible cuts it’s very difficult because we often hear: ‘we’ll we don’t actually use the money allocated for that purpose, we use it for this’” said Ellis. “So it makes it difficult for us to make cuts that won’t impact classrooms because who knows how they are being spent.”


And while figuring out district expenditures is not as easy as asking Google where to get a cup of coffee, it’s also not quite as mysterious as Ellis makes it seem.


“Every year we do examine school districts’ expenditures versus the way the model allocates and resources,” said Jed Cicarelli who oversees school finance for the Wyoming Department of Education. He said the CREW report — which stands for the Continued Review of Educational Resources in Wyoming — is available on the department’s website going back 10 years.


“We can tell you each of the 48 school districts, what they are spending on instruction., how does that compare on a per-student basis to districts of the same size,” said Cicarelli. “So if you’re interested in admin, you can benchmark that compared to districts of a similar size.”


Cicarelli said you can look at all sorts of spending categories from fuel usage to supplies and materials, and if you’re interested in transactional level data that’s available through the districts.


“That’s where I think the local control aspect really come into play,” said Cicarelli. “That’s probably why you have school districts that are required to have approvals by the board of trustees for these expenditures, so there is some oversight.”


Districts are required to make budgets, salaries, and purchases over 500 dollars publicly available.


Marguerite Herman serves on the school board for Laramie County School District #1 in Cheyenne. She said school board meetings are open to the public. “That would be a venue to bring up questions or challenges to our budget,” said Herman.


While board members have ongoing conversations about efficiencies, she said she can’t remember the last time a member of the public showed up to a meeting to scrutinize the budget.


Janine Bay Teske from Teton County School District #1 said it’s similar in her district.


“We would love for people to come and ask those kinds of questions. But people just don’t come.”


So while lawmakers searching for places to make cuts say they’d like more transparency, it doesn’t seem like Wyomingites are expressing those same concerns on the local level. And Brian Farmer from the Wyoming School Board Association said he’s not sure legislators’ concerns are solely being shaped by their constituents.


“It does not appear to me that that is a widespread or organically driven position so much as something pushed by an interest group,” said Farmer.  


A campaign called — based out of Burr Ridge, Illinois — recently launched a “transparency before taxes” campaign in Wyoming.


Jeremy Smith, business manager for Sheridan School District #1 said nothing about his budget is secret.


“There is not a penny that is unaccounted for. Nor is there a penny that is not transparent,” said Smith. “To the point where you could find out how much do we spend on gasoline mowing lawns at Tongue River High School in Dayton.”


He said the problem might actually be that there’s too much information, and not enough done to make it digestible.


“I do blame ourselves. We don’t spend enough time explaining that succinctly enough to our patrons,” said Smith. “So we could do a better job of that.”


At the state level, the WDE is working to make its databases more user-friendly. In fact, the department has to in order to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.


Those changes are expected to come online next fall. In the meantime, Jeremy Smith said you can always reach out to your district’s business manager if you have questions.

Correction: February 20, 2018 

A previous version of this story reported the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration paid consultants $800,000.