The Senate Rules Committee moved forward a bill on Wednesday that would cut roughly $130 million from Wyoming schools over the next three years.
Cuts of this magnitude—on top of the $77 million the Legislature has already slashed from the state’s education budget over the past two years—would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Wyoming law guarantees each student in the state access to a quality education and demands that the Legislature adequately fund it.
But a day before Senate File 117 passed through the Senate Rules Committee, a different committee advanced a pair of proposed amendments to the Wyoming constitution that would make the Senate’s cuts legal.
It’s a one-two punch: Demand cuts so big they’re illegal, but at the same time change the law to make them legal.
Two plans for Wyoming’s school funding troubles
Ultimately, the Senate chose to set SF-117 aside on Friday and instead included the cuts into its proposed budget bill. It’s a different vehicle, but the cuts remain the same. Both the House and the Senate are developing budget bills, and the two chambers will negotiate a final version over the next couple weeks.
If the Senate gets its way, Wyoming schools will face dark days (and the Legislature will likely face multiple lawsuits from school districts).
Meanwhile, the House is taking a much more measured approach to Wyoming’s $250 million annual education budget shortfall. A proposal that passed the House Education Committee on Thursday would update a number of the state’s existing revenue streams to fund schools. But House Bill 140 nevertheless includes roughly $34 million in cuts to be doled out over three years.
Cherry picking recommendations
Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) sponsored SF-117. Peterson served on the School Finance “Recalibration” Committee that spent nine months before the 2018 budget session working with consultants to identify things to cut from the education budget.
Ultimately, the consultants did not recommend cutting school funding at all—instead, they said Wyoming should spend an additional $70 million on education. However, the report the consultants submitted did list several areas where Wyoming could reduce funding, with the important caveat that it increase funding in other areas to balance things out.
But Peterson took one look at the report and apparently only noticed the cuts. SF-117 largely takes cues from the “Recalibration” report, proposing cuts that encompass workers compensation, health insurance, retirement, co-located schools, cash reserves, classroom size, and groundskeepers.
“I’m convinced we’ve got to do something to address this unsustainable budget problem we’ve got,” he told the Senate Rules Committee.
Ken Decaria of the Wyoming School Boards Association told the committee that Peterson’s proposal misrepresented the point of the consultants’ report.
“They came back and told you ‘This is what [public schools] should cost,’” Decaria said. “The problem with this piece of legislation is it includes all of the cuts [the consultants recommended] but it doesn’t include any of the increased spending.”
He said the consultants’ reports “aren’t like an a la carte menu. You can’t take five from Column A and three from Column B.”
What’s the “fluff”?
Peterson complained that Wyoming school districts hoard money in reserve accounts to spend on “fluff—an auditorium or a new shop, Astroturf on the football field. You can go on and on and on.”
But Decaria shot back that the “fluff” paid for by reserve dollars was more often “things like school resource officers, food service, salaries – that’s just some of the ‘fluff’ we’ve been talking about that’s in some of these budgets.”
Decaria also expressed how tired he is of hearing about how much Wyoming spends on education compared to neighboring states. “We spend a lot more in Wyoming for a lot of things,” he said. “We spend more for transportation, health care, corrections than all the other states around us. It’s not just education.”
He noted that Utah has a $750 million ballot initiative that is being pushed by its business community to spend more on education.
Aside from the obvious harm the Senate’s proposed cuts would do to Wyoming children’s education, they would also cost thousands of jobs.
Decaria estimated that the Senate’s cuts would result in 1,500 public school job losses. The Legislature’s cuts over the past two years have already led to the elimination of nearly 600 education jobs in the state.
Tammy Schroeder, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Education Association, said the Senate’s proposed cuts would cripple local economies.
“The loss of 1,500 well-paid teachers in the state is going to be devastating to our communities,” Schroeder said. “They’re not going to stay around and re-tool, like many people from the minerals industry. We’re going to lose those very good teachers to other states.”
Schroeder also asked the committee members to “think deeply about what a classroom is going to look like with these cuts. Let’s walk into a kindergarten classroom. What’s gone each day? I don’t know if we’ve really thought about that. It’s not going to be business as usual. … It’s going to drastically change. It’s going to be bigger class sizes, for sure. There’s going to be a big difference for kids who struggle and a big difference for kids who are well engaged in the classroom.”