CHEYENNE — A bill aimed to take a jab at the $300 million education funding shortfall died in the Wyoming Legislature Wednesday after the Senate and House couldn’t come to an agreement.
At the start of the legislative session, education funding was a the forefront of concerns with several bills targeting K-12 funds. However, most of those bills failed to advance and attention was placed on two bills in particular: House Bill 173 and Senate File 143.
While both bills were designed to make major cuts in education funding, the House bill preserved the funding model as a block grant and included a conditional sales tax to help with revenue, whereas the Senate file did neither. The House did not consider the Senate file for introduction after it passed through the Senate.
Much of the contention with House Bill 173 revolved around the provision that would incorporate a conditional sales tax if reserves were to fall below a certain threshold.
“House Bill 173 adopts the current legislative model. It includes reductions, revenue diversions, revenue increase of a half-penny tax, and combines an increase to district reserves from 15 percent to 30 percent for the next five years with offsetting the School Foundation Program with 80 percent of American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for Wyoming school districts,” Sweetwater County School District (SCSD) No. 2 Business Manager Chris Dean said.
In short, “the bill takes step to address the structural deficit in K-12 funding,” Dean said.
The bill passed the House with proposed cuts of about $80 million over three years in mostly administrative costs while implementing the conditional sales tax. However, the Senate refused to go along with this, and amended the bill to remove the tax provision, among other changes.
As the session ended Wednesday, the Chambers ran out of time to negotiate the bill any further.
Representative Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said in a Facebook post that, “school districts are the most immediate winners of the legislature’s inability to make a decision.”
“On the last day of the regular legislative session, House and Senate conferees we’re unable to agree on HB173, the education funding bill. The House version contained some cuts, a tax increase and fund diversions to schools. The Senate version was simpler, containing essentially cuts only,” Stith said in his post.
School districts across the state will continue to receive full state funding, plus an extra $303 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARA) funds, according to Stith. He added that of those federal monies, about $16 million should go to SCSC No. 1.
ARA funds are federal funding to help mitigate the challenges shared by all from the pandemic and its effects on the economy, Dean said.
Dean noted that while ARA funds are a short-term remedy, “it allows for the districts and the state to seek even greater efficiencies and additional creative solutions to sustain K-12 education into the future.”
“Unfortunately, none of this resolves the long-term structural deficit facing K-12,” Stith said in his post.
The death of this bill means education funding remains unchanged, the $300 million deficit in Wyoming’s education budget left with no solutions.
Outlook for Local Districts
While the Legislature’s inability to pass a bill that cuts funding is rather good news for local districts, SCSD No. 2 Superintendent Craig Barringer pointed out the district still needs to make major cuts in the budget due to a decrease in enrollment.
“Right now it looks like funding will be based on last year’s funding formula. We know at SCSD No. 2 we have to cut at least $1 million out of our budget because of the loss of students in the district. Our plan for next year has addressed that loss of funding,” Barringer said.
Additionally, no decisions at the state level now means funding is still up in the air with no certain solutions for districts work with.
“It is always unfortunate when the legislature adjourns and hasn’t been able to agree on how to fund schools. School funding is a complicated issue and there are no easy answers,” Barringer said. “The challenge is planning for the future and the uncertainties that lie ahead in school funding and recruiting new staff to our schools. I hope they can come together in a special session to come to agreement on the future of schools in Wyoming.”
As for SCSD No. 1, they face similar issues with enrollment decline. Superintendent Kelly McGovern said during a special school board meeting Thursday that because of anticipated enrollment reduction, the district will have to “right size” before the start of next year.
She explained that “right sizing” is a method of aligning the number of students the district serves with the proper amount of staff needed to provide quality education.
“The difficulty for us is that we’ve been heavy in some of the areas we have for staffing,” she said during the meeting.
In the short-term, McGovern announced Thursday that there won’t be a reduction in force for the 2021-2022 school year. However, similarly to SCSD No. 2, the question of how education will be funded in the future remains up in the air, making it difficult to prepare and budget for school years to come.
McGovern said the school district will continue to closely watch their future enrollment numbers to figure out how to budget if the Legislature does end up agreeing on a new funding model, possibly in a special summer session. She said the district will keep a close eye on future enrollment numbers to determine how to budget in the event the State Legislature agrees on a new funding model. McGovern, just as Barringer, believes there will be a summer session to address K-12 funding.