Wyoming Legislature

The Wyoming Legislature passed amendments Tuesday morning that could save Teton County schools from deep cuts.

House Bill 61 deals with the quinquennial recalibration of the school funding model, and it originally proposed cutting $100 million from schools around the state for the next fiscal year. However the House Education Committee narrowly passed an amendment that would increase the sales tax by 1% when the rainy day fund dips below $650 million, eventually raising around $164 million each year for schools.

That would decrease the proposed cuts to $22 million.

Without the increased state revenue, school funding is projected to face a roughly $300 million shortfall each of the next three years. Although the original bill would infuse schools with cash from the rainy day fund for a couple of years, it also makes massive cuts to cover the shortfall.

Wyoming’s school foundation program, which levels the financial playing field for districts, is complicated, so the bill wouldn’t affect each district evenly. A memo from the Wyoming Legislative Services Office cites just over $3 million in estimated cuts for Teton County School District No. 1 if the sales tax amendment doesn’t pass the full House.

“It is difficult to come up with a number,” said Kristen Mayo, executive director of resources for the district.

Wyoming’s school foundation program is a block grant determined based on things like transportation costs, teacher cost of living and other factors. The most crucial factor is average daily membership, because each school receives a baseline amount for each student.

As originally written, HB61 would reduce the per-pupil rate, which was about $17,000, by $1,082. It’s not yet clear what the figure would be should the sales tax amendment pass.

Other bills would limit the kinds of things the state pays for. Senate File 143 would limit central office staff member numbers and phase out transportation funding, among other changes. Until all those bills are decided, Mayo said, it’s impossible to know exactly how the district will be affected.

However, if any funding cuts pass, they are likely to lower the amount the district receives under the foundation program.

“If you take the House bill and you reduce $100 million based on ADM or the Senate bill and reduce it based on this criteria, it’s still a block grant,” Mayo said. “So, really, at the end of the day, it’s still just a cut to education funding.”

Some districts, like Natrona County School District No. 1, have already said where the cuts might hurt it. Teton County administrators are opting for a wait-and-see approach.

District administrators have said that 88% of the district’s spending is on staff benefits and salaries. In the past five years, Mayo said, budget talks in the Legislature have already induced some belt tightening, so “there’s not a lot of room there to make cuts that won’t be impactful.”

The Education Committee could vote on House Bill 61 later this week, and Senate File 143 has been received for introduction.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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