The future of Wyoming’s public schools system lies in the hands of state leaders who can’t agree whether the system even works.

Worse, in the 21st century they can’t even find a place to meet with a decent telephone conference call system.

When we last saw the wizards who decide how much Wyoming spends to educate our children, the Legislature cut public schools spending by $34.5 million for next year.

Individual school districts immediately started calculating how much the spending reductions, coupled with enrollment losses, will harm their efforts, including forcing teacher and staff layoffs. Some will sue the state. How many choose litigation will largely be contingent upon the job a new Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration does to cut spending without chopping the high quality of the state’s educational system to bits.

The select committee held its first meeting in Casper last week, and its 10 members and other observers quickly staked out their positions to solve the task at hand: How will the state close the $400 million annual shortfall in education spending anticipated over the next few years?

Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) addressed the committee by conference call in his role as head of the Legislative Management Council. Bebout told the five House and five Senate members that the council has divided up the work for the three committees that will be examining education finance issues during the interim.

He said the Revenue Committee will consider taxes and the diversion of existing revenues to pay for education. The Education Committee will look for responsible cuts and cost savings to make the system more efficient. The recalibration committee must put everything together and recommend a better funding model for schools, he said.

Bebout made clear that when he says “better,” he means “cheaper.” As he has stated on numerous occasions as leader of the Senate, he believes school spending in Wyoming is way out of control.

Senator sees it only one way

Since he has opposed every tax measure that’s been suggested to end the shortfall, including personal and corporate income taxes, the only option Bebout sees for the future is massive education cuts.

“When we look at the overall cost of education, what we have now simply isn’t working when we spend the amount of money we’re spending and we don’t perform any better than we’ve been performing,” Bebout said. “We have to ask ourselves why are we spending so much money for the product we’re getting at the end of the day?”

Bebout put it another way in a press statement he made during the recent session. “You cannot address a bullet wound with a Band-Aid,” he said. “To educate a student in Wyoming today costs nearly $6,000 more per student than it does anywhere else in the Rockies. Wyoming’s education spending is completely out of whack with the region and we can no longer afford to continue in this fashion.”

While the Senate has been intractable in its no-new-taxes-or-tax-increases stance, the House, led by Speaker Steve Harshman (R-HD37, Casper) argued in favor of smaller cuts combined with other sources of revenue. Those include a redistribution of mineral severance taxes, borrowing from the state’s “rainy day fund” and a sales tax increase that would be activated as needed.

It should be no surprise that it was Harshman who seemed to stun the audience when he was asked for his take on things after the first three hours of the marathon session. “So why are we here?” he asked.

“Are we trying to save $200 million through a recalibration effort? Not going to happen,” he said matter-of-factly.

That’s what the speaker told everyone at the end of the session when other GOP legislators raced to jump on the recalibration bandwagon that they believed is going to solve all of Wyoming’s education funding woes. In fact, he told them that after recalibration, education costs may even be higher.

Recalibration is the act of determining what will be in the state’s “basket of goods” to deliver the roughly equal quality education to every student in the state, no matter the size or resources of the 48 school districts. While it was scheduled to be done in 2020, the education bill passed in March accelerated the recalibration process to begin this year.

Sen. Hank Coe (R-SD18, Cody), co-chairman of the select committee, will serve as Bebout’s alter ego on the panel. He has been the biggest booster of recalibration as the panacea of the school spending problem. Moreover, he has total faith that the minerals industry will recover soon from the bust that saw prices and production fall, so new taxes aren’t needed.

But Coe was physically absent from the committee’s initial meeting, and his long-distance contribution on the conference call was almost non-existent. He and the other two members on the call, Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-HD13, Laramie) and Sen. Bill Landen (R-SD27, Casper), constantly complained throughout the day that they couldn’t hear what was being said. Microphones were endlessly shifted, but the problem was never fixed. The whole thing could have been recorded for a Verizon “Can you hear me now?” commercial.

Asked to express his views near the end of the meeting, an exasperated Coe said, “I don’t think I have any closing thought, I’ll just hang around in case we make any decisions.”

And he would base his decision on what, exactly?

Here’s an idea: instead of meeting at the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Building, why not set up shop at Casper College, with its state-of-the-art communications system? That way the co-chairman would know what’s going on and the proceedings could be beamed to the public at other community colleges and at the University of Wyoming.

We’ve paid millions for these facilities. Why don’t our cost-conscious legislators, particularly the Senate president, use them? It would encourage the public participation they all claim to desire. (Perhaps the reason is obvious: they don’t want the public to know.)

At the meeting an unlikely coalition began to form between Harshman and Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D, SD-9, Laramie), who didn’t take kindly to Bebout’s vague trashing of the quality of the state’s educational system.

Harshman said he thinks Wyoming has made “a tremendous investment in education and we’ve gotten a lot of great things done in accountability.”

Rothfuss, meanwhile, pounced on Bebout’s low assessment of Wyoming student achievement. He urged the committee “to bring evidence and data so that we understand what we’re doing relative to other states in terms of spending, so that we look at it as data analysts instead of just picking and choosing pieces of data that fit our narrative.”

Rothfuss is confident that once the select committee looks at the facts, it will conclude, as he has, that “we’ve invested in the state of Wyoming’s education, we’ve invested heavily, we’ve performed well, and we’ve performed relatively well in line with some high expectations.”

Rothfuss said the funding issue boils down to this: will Wyoming continue to strive for excellence in education, or will it be content with mediocrity? That really is the choice the recalibration committee is being asked to make.

The answer seems simple, once legislators start debating spending vs. quality in any given area, don’t be surprised if quality takes a back seat in the view of many GOP lawmakers who place education too far down on their list of priorities.

Sen. Ray Peterson (R-SD19, Cowley), who has never been involved in the recalibration process, attempted to answer Harshman’s “why are we here?” question.

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“If we believe for a minute that we are in good shape with where we’re at with school finance … then I guess we are wasting our time,” he said. “I feel we are not in a good spot. It’s certainly unsustainable. Recalibration was going to be the vehicle to get something better.”

Peterson claimed that in his local school district, a tutor makes $80,000 a year.

“So this is why we’re here,” he said. “I think [recalibration] will be a fair vehicle, it will involve the public, it will involve the school districts. We’ll put it all out on the table and we’ll get to where we need to be. We have to diversify our revenue base and revenue. But I don’t feel comfortable having to come up with an additional $400 million in taxes when we have these kind of expenditures in schools. What do you think the response is going to be?”

This will be an interesting committee to follow the rest of the year. It has a huge task that will be made harder to successfully complete given its choice to require a majority of both the House and Senate members to approve any motion that is made. How many good ideas will clear both of those hurdles?

Given some already strong, opposite ideological positions voiced by some of the prominent members, I struggle to see this entity making much progress on recalibration. But if the back-and-forth debate can enlighten the public, I hope a compelling case can be made to keep striving for excellence. Doing so will mean passing appropriate taxes to make sure Wyoming never settles for less when it comes to education.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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