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Committee approves education funding boost

CASPER — Lawmakers voted narrowly Tuesday to approve a recommendation that Wyoming’s public school system be given a $19 million bump and that the recommendation be sent to Gov. Mark Gordon and the broader Legislature.

The funding increase comes in the form of an external cost adjustment, which is essentially an inflation increase. The Joint Education Committee approved the recommendation last month and forwarded it to the Joint Appropriations Committee, which oversees Wyoming’s purse strings. Lawmakers in that committee voted Tuesday to approve and forward the recommendation, which — supporters argued — was vital to keeping Wyoming’s education system within constitutional bounds.

“We’re constitutionally mandated to do it,” said Rep. Bob Nicholas, a Cheyenne Republican and the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “Either we amend the constitution, or we find new funding model. (Approving the ECA is) not only the right thing to do, but the legal thing to do.”

The Equality State’s education system is constructed atop a constitutional foundation forged through more than a decade of litigation. Schools here are paid for according to what’s known as the evidence-based model, a funding system drawn up by consultants in 2015. However, for years prior to the bust of 2016, the Legislature funded above what the evidence-based model called for. This better, richer system became known as the legislative model.

But because of the cuts brought about because of the bust, the legislative model and the evidence-based model are about the same. Indeed, data presented to lawmakers Tuesday showed that the state was projected to be paying below what the evidence-based model called for.

That’s legally dicey, as the evidence-based model was crafted as a result of several landmark Wyoming Supreme Court cases. If the state pays below the evidence-based model, then it risks being in violation of those court decisions — and, by extension, the Wyoming Constitution.

Such was the argument Nicholas made: If the inflation adjustment isn’t paid, data shows, then the state will be underfunding its system by $10 million.

Still, the inflation adjustment gave some members of the committee heartburn. The state education system is still facing a deficit to the tune of at least $250 million. The entire state government is under strain as revenues fall and the outlook in the Powder River Basin continues to be less than encouraging.

“We cannot, with the future revenue streams … continue to fund education at the level we have now,” argued Sen. Larry Hicks, a Baggs Republican.

Sen. Eli Bebout, a Riverton Republican and the other chairman of the committee, said that, given the fiscal situation, lawmakers would have to take money from somewhere else to fund schools. Nicholas said the same thing, though he argued that supporting schools was tantamount to supporting small-town Wyoming.

The debate about the external cost adjustment devolved into the broader discussion that state lawmakers have had for years about the education system. Bebout, who served as president of the Senate during crucial years when sweeping school cuts were considered, again asked why the state was paying more per student than Wyoming’s neighbors. Hicks said the funding model “sucks” and pointed out that districts pay teachers, principals, superintendents and others well above what the model calls for.

Nicholas said Wyoming pays more because it’s a rural state and has to support rural schools. Rep. Albert Sommers, a Pinedale Republican, added that recruiting teachers to Wyoming is becoming increasingly difficult, hence the large salaries. He said Wyoming’s salaries were flatlining in comparison to salaries in neighboring states.

“Flatlining’s not gonna cut it,” he said.

He added that “if we don’t invest in our kids, we’re not going to invest in anything in this state.”

The debate about the external cost adjustment — and school funding in general — did not end Tuesday. The cost adjustment still has to be considered and debated by the full Legislature, and the discussion — particularly in the more fiscally conservative Senate — will likely repeat.

There’s a long way to go yet, but if the cost adjustment is ultimately approved by the full Legislature, it’ll make the second straight year that Wyoming’s legislative body has approved the funding boost, after years of districts going without.

The Appropriation Committee did not need to take action on the Joint Education Committee’s recent decision to support a measure that would remove the cap on special education spending. The removal of that cap means an additional boost of $10 million. That measure will be considered by the full Legislature early next year.

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