In a state Legislature budget session like the one that starts Monday, almost anything can be a bargaining chip. One thing that has been a political football in the past, however, looks like it’s a done deal.
The external cost adjustment, known as the ECA, is money approved by the Legislature to help school districts balance their budgets in the face of rising costs.
“It is supposed to be an index put in place to maintain your spending power,” said Janine Bay Teske, a member of the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees. “It is supposed to offset the cost of inflation.”
Whatever the cost adjustment is supposed to be, it often becomes a point of contention in legislative wrangling. It has not always been something districts could rely on.
“There have been years where we didn’t get the cost adjustment,” said Kristen Mayo, the district’s executive director of resources. “The increases in the ECA the last two years haven’t even gotten us to a zero point.”
This year, Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, said it shouldn’t be a problem because the 12 members of the Joint Appropriations Committee support funding the adjustment for one year.
However, the recommendation the Joint Education Committee gave the appropriations committee said the adjustment should be funded to the tune of $35.2 million over two years. Instead Gierau introduced a motion during a Jan. 16 meeting to fund it for one year at $17 million.
That motion didn’t receive a second, so it failed. An ensuing motion by Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette, to fully fund the adjustment passed, on a 7-5 vote with ayes from all seven House members on the committee. The competing measures reveal a divide between the House and Senate.
“The House is firmly behind funding the external cost adjustment” for two years, said Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton.
Gierau said he wanted to fund the adjustment for the first year so that it didn’t become a bargaining chip. He felt comfortable doing so because the state is approaching its mandated recalibration of its funding model.
As a result of a Wyoming Supreme Court decision, every five years the state has to evaluate its funding model, which dictates how much districts are paid for teacher salaries and their host of other expenses. That process, called recalibration, is meant to bring the funding model, and therefore spending, in line with the statutorily required services school districts provide.
Recalibration is designed to make funding equitable across every district in Wyoming, and Gierau said he didn’t want to be locked into paying roughly $17 million for the second year of the 2020-21 biennium without knowing if that was the right amount.
Schwartz, however, said the position of the House members on the appropriations committee was to fund the recommended amount because the adjustment isn’t set in stone.
“It can be adjusted,” he said. “The assumption is it won’t be less than that.”