Students from Campbell County High School observe the Senate from the gallery on March 1. They were visiting Cheyenne for an academic competition and stopped in the temporary capitol building to watch the chamber. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

A proposed education funding bill that cuts $100 million a year could prompt layoffs around Wyoming, House lawmakers say as they prepare for another round of the education debate that has for years divided the Legislature. 

The proposed cuts will force lawmakers from Wyoming’s cities and small towns to ponder the stark impacts of a dispute that has so far manifested in smaller, more manageable cuts to school districts, House Revenue Committee Chairman, longtime education advocate and high school football coach Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said. 

Under this year’s proposed bill, “it’s going to be layoffs in every town in Wyoming,” he said. 

A leading senator disagreed, arguing that school districts have built up “slush funds” and can use those reserves to get through the cuts. Lawmakers should trim back what the state gives to school districts, and re-examine the results and components of a Wyoming education, Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Scott said. 

Students from Cody High School and Cody Middle School lobbied legislators in January, 2019. Here Natalie Call (back to camera), Owen Preston, Tashi Mathuin and Soffy Anderson engage Rep. Dan Laursen, a Park County Republican from Powell. (Deb White)

Lawmakers on the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration advanced a bill to the 66th Wyoming Legislature that includes both the cuts and the framework for a future sales tax increase to fund public schools down the road. Members of both the House and the Senate called the bill a vehicle for a possible compromise, though both sides expressed doubts that such a resolution could be reached. 

“Some days I think so, some days not,” Harshman said when asked if this year’s bill would advance the state toward a long term arrangement for sustainable education funding.

Meanwhile, advocates for the state’s school boards and school districts said the Legislature’s proposed cuts might be deep enough to bring the state well afoul of its constitutional requirements for a free, equitable and complete education. While school districts do have some reserves as Scott suggested, those accounts are limited to 15% of a district’s budget by statute, Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association, said. They are not sufficient to maintain current staff and programming if the proposed cuts go into effect, he said.  

Long-simmering debate

For years, public-education officials and advocates have warned the state could find itself back in court over school funding. Lawmakers are already funding education below the levels several different education consultants the Legislature has hired say are necessary to keep up with education requirements in statute.

“We’re at the place where we’re going to find a straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Farmer said.

Senators who have pushed for spending reductions for years believe the Legislature has both the right and obligation to cut school budgets in response to the state’s fiscal crisis, however. 

“That’s the job of the Legislature because if we get it wrong the people can replace us in the next election,” Scott said. Still, he hopes for a more detailed debate on education requirements, one with more precision and nuance than the current bill structure, which would simply cut a percentage of each school districts’ budget.

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) looks through documents at his desk in the Senate, which features a unique filing system, during the 2020 Legislature. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“We have the constitutional right to do an across-the-board cut if we choose to,” Scott said. “But I don’t know if the courts will agree with that. It’s better policy all around to cut specific features.”

Under the proposed bill, school districts would take a cut based on a formula that uses school enrollment. Districts will likely take anywhere from 5-7% cuts, Farmer said, though some impact numbers remain to be crunched. The cuts will likely stay below 10% per district, Farmer said. That means in most cases the cuts will be below the levels Gov. Mark Gordon has proposed and enacted on state agencies.

In general, recent governors and lawmakers have made steeper cuts to state agencies than the state’s public education system since mineral revenues first began to dip in 2016 — a fact that is not lost on those calling for cutting down what Wyoming spends on educating its young people. 

Debate set for March

Debate on school funding will likely not occur in the 8-day session that begins on Jan. 27, according to House Majority Leader Albert Sommers. Lawmakers hope to receive further public comment on the sweeping bill that in theory sets education funding levels for years. The measure will instead be debated in House and Senate education committees and by the full Legislature in its March session, Sommers said.

The March session is proposed to be an in-person gathering in the Capitol, depending on the state of the pandemic in Wyoming. 

Schedules aside, in many ways the contours of the debate haven’t changed over the last four years. The Legislature has not significantly altered what it requires the state’s schools to teach, though it has added computer science requirements. 

Many of the leading lawmakers on both sides of the debate remain in office, though the absences of former Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Senator Hank Coe (R-Cody) may be impactful, according to several legislative observers. Bebout and Coe both retired from the Legislature in 2020. Coe, a longtime chair of the senate education committee, passed away last week. 

The debate will occur in a more urgent context, however, as mineral revenues that plunged in the wake of the pandemic and a recent oil price war are only beginning to stabilize. Education funding is propped up by the state’s savings accounts, lawmakers note, but if a resolution isn’t found soon, the state faces a “fiscal cliff” for school funding. Under current law and revenue projects, education will need around $298 million from savings to pay for schools in the current biennium, and close to $546 million for the next two-year budgeting cycle — 2023-2024. After that, there is no plan to cover for education’s shortfall.  

“This is groundhog day, but we only get to do it so many more times,” Farmer said.

Tax support

The majority of the state’s school boards — the elected officials closest to Wyoming communities — support a 1% increase in the state’s sales tax that would be devoted to education, according to a memo the Wyoming School Boards Association provided the recalibration committee in December.  

Around 85% of school board members voted in favor of a resolution for a 1% sales tax increase. Such an increase, if dedicated wholly to education, would raise an estimated $164 million for schools in its first year. Notably, Farmer said, school board members from both small rural school districts and the state’s larger urban ones support the measure.   

Such a tax’s onset could be triggered if the Legislature’s chief saving fund drops below $500 million, Harshman said. Education funding has slowly been draining down the Legislative Reserve Stabilization Account, after Harshman and other House members tied the account to school budgets in 2017.

Then-Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) in the Capitol building during the 2020 Legislature. Harshman is now chair of the House Revenue Committee and a member of the House Education Committee. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

According to the most recent revenue projections, Wyoming’s public school system is operating at deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Those levels could drain the LSRA, or “rainy day fund,” down to around $543 million by 2025. The fund held $1.2 billion going into the current 2021-2022 budget cycle.

Once the LSRA reaches $500 million, the automatic transfers to support education cease. In the 2025-26 biennium, if nothing changes in revenues, spending or law, public schools would need to find $649 million, according to a Legislative Service Office fiscal profile. There is nowhere for education to find that staggering sum in law today. 

Funding school programming is just one piece of the problem. The Legislature has built and maintained schools for years using money from new coal mining leases, and that revenue source has dried up with coal’s decline. Considering projected construction and maintenance projects, the budget for school construction will run a $146 million deficit in 2023-24, and a $314 million deficit the biennium after that. 

Compromise? 

Like Harshman, both Sommers and Scott are far from certain the two chambers and the different legislative points of view might be reconciled this year. 

The Legislature may have to discuss taxation and school funding cuts in separate bills, Scott said, despite the link House leaders seek to establish between them. “Each method of dealing with the schools is going to have its supporters and detractors and each method of taxation is going to have its supporters and detractors,” Scott said. 

Sommers hopes the Legislature has a more comprehensive debate on what the state will provide its schoolchildren in the future, and to what extent lawmakers are willing to pay for a good education in Wyoming. Until revenues from coal, gas and oil started dropping, neither voters nor lawmakers gave sufficient thought to what public education cost, since fossil fuel companies were paying the bills, he said.

“It’s this continuing education process of the public and the [legislative] bodies,” Sommers said. “If you want to cut your way out of it, what does that look like? How many teachers are you going to lay off?”

School districts are ready for a firmer resolution on the funding question that has plagued them for years now, Farmer said. That desire drove the widespread support for the sales tax among school board members, Farmer said. 

“They weren’t interested in a half of a solution, they were interested in ‘how do we solve this going forward?’” he said. 

Farmer worries senators will continue to call for more budget cuts before looking for new revenue streams. “The Senate still is likely to say this is a two-part game and we have to finish part one before we can move to part two, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. 

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Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. I would like to know accurately what proportion of Wyoming’s Education spending is spent on new buildings versus teacher salaries and benefits ( meager) and operating expenses.

    My uninformed take on it is that a moratorium on new school buildings and remodelings could buy us few years before we have to make cuts in school personnel.

  2. I am amazed that any one listens to Charlie Scott. He used to be an interesting maverick of sorts, now he is just another anti taxer. I don’t care for taxes, but the free ride we have had from the mineral industry is just about over. Now it is time to pay the piper. With the projected possible school funding cuts our schools will be unrecognizable. I spent 42 years working in the schools, and 12 years as a board member.

  3. Really? $16,500 per pupil ? REALLY ? ? ?

    And athletes motel costs are paid for traveling games? Couldn’t the whole team simply share one room, and pay for that themselves? Why not just camp in a large tent in the park? So fun ?

    Ok, so times have changed. But maybe times need to keep changing.

    In circa 1916, my mother-in-law was a star HS basketball player in a small town in Minnesota. The team took the train down the line for any away-game. After the game, the girls paired up and stayed overnight at the homes of the players of the other team. Next morning, they would gather up and take the train back to their own home town. But I forgot to ask her who paid for the train tickets. They probably earned that themselves at bake sales.

    She was a great baker, and as a Junior, even took 1st place at the Mn State Fair in bread baking. Competitors stayed free the whole week in the University’s dorm next to the State Fairground.

    Though she was the top scorer on her high school’s basketball team, it was clear to all of us family that her win in the bread baking competition at the State Fair was immeasurably more dear to her than sports. As a U grad student fully 61 (yes, 61), I drove her through that campus and happened to ask her about that competition back in 1916. She recalled every detail of it, including the names and locations of the University buildings they slept and ate in during that week She hadn’t been back there once during those 61 years.

    Yes, times change and sometimes a little history helps put things into perspective. I doubt that any policy maker or educator back then could even fathom a per-pupil spending level of $16,500 just a century out in Wyoming. Perhaps it’s time to consider making some more changes out that way.

    1. I doubt anyone from 1916 could imagine paying 35000 for a car or 60000 for a truck, let alone $4.00 for a loaf of bread. We are not going to go back to having students sleep at other kids houses in a desire to save money. We can’t cut our way out of this mess.

  4. The biggest problems we have are lawmakers who refuse to make tough decisions. Every year it plays out the same. They are too cowardly to take up taxation to increase revenues. They spend most of every session on culture war issues that are none of their business or trying to adopt every ALEC written bill they can find, and then run out of time. Leadership needs to end the senseless procession of cosmetic bills, and focus on revenue and budgeting. Lawmakers need to stop pretending that revenue from fossil fuels is coming back. Tax wealth, tax big box stores, tax corporations, tax tourists, start a progressive income tax. Just stop this endless procrastination. And if cuts must be made, look to the prison system. We incarcerate twice as many people as the national average. We have too long sentences for many crimes, we have too many people jailed for minor crimes, we have a punitive parole system, and we have a legislature that is too eager to add new crimes. Cutting an overgrown prison system makes a lot more sense than cutting education. As long as the legislature refuses to address revenues, they are failing the people of Wyoming.

  5. The only solution, tough as it seems, is for 75% of the younger wyoming population to move to other states. Then we could close 50% of the schools and the state could afford to pay for the education costs. One intelligent solution would be to legalize pot as well as other drugs and then we would have a steady, reliable and growing income base. We could also then rightsize law enforcement all across the state and save hundreds of millions a year. None of this will happen of course in the state of the proud ignorant.

  6. The most recent data I saw had Wyoming #2 in spending and about middle of the 50 states in terms of student performance – and it’s a pretty wide gap in spending as well. The underlying problem is the constitution mandating a certain level of spending without corresponding results. Even now, with the state facing deficits the School Districts – all 48 of them – their response is to sue the State for equitable funding.

    I think the populous would be willing to tax themselves more if the School Districts were producing results commensurate with the funds expended – and using those funds in the most efficient and effective manner. School Districts in this state have bloated administrations and no incentive to perform and use resources efficiently because of the constitutional mandate. It’s time the sacred cows get slaughtered, there is no reason we need 48 School Districts, that luxury is over – over 100 schools in this state have more students than 3 of the smallest districts.. Why does each school district have their own health insurance plans, the retirement system is good enough for the districts, why not the state health plan.

    Until somebody(s) is willing to challenge the current system, we will have the School Districts with their hands out and the State trying to figure out how to avoid the next lawsuit and put more money in their pockets – while continuing to accept mediocre performance.

  7. No real estate taxes? That is news to me and I wonder why I have been paying property taxes.

    Wyoming spends more per student than most states. Wyoming spends $16,537 per student per year versus less than $8,000 per student per year in Utah and Idaho. This is something to be proud of, but it also a fact despite the above comments.

    Nasbo.org shows Wyoming spent more on education in 2018 (SF001) than 2016 (HB 001) What cuts to education? Increases less than you want is not a cut despite the article claims.

    We needs targeted cuts (consolidate districts and have athletes pay for their lodging for trips are prime examples) and then higher property taxes. A property tax increase would have less expense to run than a new income tax system. It also more stable, ask California.

    We have strong legislature leadership and hopefully this year they will find a sustainable solution. It is really important to remember that during the good times Democrats like Rep Connolly thought Senator Bebout and others were saving too much. With 20/20 hindsight thank heavens they were the minority!

  8. I am tired of reading about the fiscal “crisis”every year when there are no taxes on real estate
    Or income tax. Maybe the legislators are afraid if we educated citizens they will vote them all out.

  9. The state needs more revenue or many services are going to suffer including education, roads, law enforcement, and everything else. Cutting our way out of this fiscal crisis is not realistic!!!

  10. I like how it’s their “responsibility” to look at all options to cut budgets but never their “responsibility” to look at all options to generate revenue.

    1. It’s like some deadbeat who got laid off from his temp job, but instead of looking for a new job to pay the bills, he’s trying to sell all the family’s stuff on Craigslist, but he’s already run out of stuff to sell so he’s resorted to pulling the tires off the car, pulling down the wallpaper, ripping out the drywall, tearing the shingles off the roof all while saying it’s all just temporary, his temp job at an already-bankrupt company will pull through and hire him back any day now and we just have to learn to live within our means!

      It’s outright insanity and the complete opposite of “responsibility”.