Every two years school district officials across Wyoming anxiously watch the state Legislature as it debates education funding. This is that year.
The Legislature’s budget session starts Monday. It is a biannual debate over how to manage changing or diminishing revenues from mineral extraction and fund schools that are expensive yet high achieving. In recent years the fight has centered on whether to cut education funding to cover budget shortfalls.
The request that Gov. Mark Gordon sent to lawmakers ahead of the session left education funding essentially flat, which may seem like an improvement for school administrators who have seen cuts in previous budgets. But as costs rise, flat funding may still leave them with tough decisions.
Health insurance costs, for example, continue to grow, and Teton County School District No. 1 administrators don’t know if legislators will recognize that in their funding allocation. Lawmakers could increase education funding to cover those costs or leave it stagnant.
“Those are the things that we’re trying to anticipate,” the district’s Executive Director of Resources Kristen Mayo said. “And we just don’t know the answers to those questions.”
Ahead of the start of the Legislature’s session, Superintendent Gillian Chapman drafted the school district’s priorities, which are attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com. The district Board of Trustees is set to consider those priorities at its monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Much of Chapman’s focus is on stable education funding, not just for this biennium but also for the future. Attracting teachers to move to Jackson is tough because of the high cost of living, she said, but the tenuous state of education funding plays a role, too.
“Folks aren’t staying because of the instability in funding,” Chapman said. “This is a battle that we are spending a lot of time and energy on annually.”
A pair of Democratic Teton County legislators who sit on the Joint Appropriations Committee see their colleagues maintaining education funding, at least for this biennium. Sen. Mike Gierau and Rep. Andy Schwartz both said they see the House and Senate following the governor’s recommendation and keeping education funding flat.
Work on the budget starts several months before the Legislature convenes. Heads of state departments come before the Joint Appropriations Committee to make their budget pitches. Five senators and seven House representatives sit on the committee, and sometimes they have clashing priorities.
“We had a gulf of differences between the House and Senate” last biennium, Gierau said. “There were two separate budgets. This year we are much closer.”
The appropriations committee in its preparation for the session goes over each line item of the budget before submitting its proposal. A few major items will be subjects of discussion, particularly transportation, special education and school safety.
Though schools generally have wide latitude on how to spend their money in the state’s School Foundation Program, a cap on transportation spending was in place prior to the last budget. When that cap was lifted districts had a flurry of spending on new buses. Gierau said some of his colleagues want to instate more rules, like mileage minimums for buses, or another cap.
“I think we’re kind of getting into micromanagement,” he said. “I think the transportation folks in our district do a good job. … Their brethren across the state are not too far off.”
Special education funding is always a hot-button discussion during budget cycles because the cost per student is so much higher than for other students. Districts have little control over what needs their students might have, so some years their special education costs are higher than others.
Some legislators also want to cap special education funding, but an idea that has gained traction is instating a cap on spending and having a pool of money districts can apply to access once they reach their spending limit. Gierau said he supports fully funding special education but doesn’t see that as a likely outcome, though the Joint Education Committee has supported a measure that would remove caps on special education spending.
He said he wants a pool of up to $15 million, though he said his Senate Republican colleagues would likely want it to be closer to $5 million.
Schools have flexibility because they receive money as a block grant. Chapman has left some curriculum development positions unfilled, passing those responsibilities to administrators so she can retain more counselors and other student support staff.
Chapman also uses that kind of latitude — along with some external funding — to make changes that increase school safety, but she would like to see the Legislature allocate more money for school safety. The district has an agreement with law enforcement agencies to pay for school resource officers.
Some districts have taken steps to allow educators to concealed carry firearms in school (Teton County is not one), and others have put up fences and other physical elements to harden their campuses.
The state has set aside a fund to help districts buy safety equipment like radios, but its narrow requirements prevent districts from using the money on staff positions like counselors who could build relationships with students or different locks for secure entrances.
“I hope that that sort of narrow parameter gets lifted, because otherwise we can’t use it,” Chapman said. “We have to figure out how we can take it out of the block grant in order to solve our safety and security needs.”
Sometime during the session the Legislature will send a budget proposal to Gordon. A shortfall of $222 million will require the Legislature to transfer money from the state’s “rainy day” fund as part of that, The Riverton Ranger reported.
Chapman said that with external entities continually ranking Wyoming’s schools and students as some of the best in the country, stable funding was crucial, even in light of declining revenues and the shortfall.
“I do worry about Wyoming slipping,” she said. “We are ranked so highly right now, nationally, that now’s not the time for the Legislature to decide that we’re just not going to fund education at the same rate.”