School official sees education funding bills as threat

By Kathy Brown

Gillette News Record/Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Through Tuesday, state legislators had added 47 new bills in the Senate and House, including two dealing with funding Wyoming’s K-12 schools.

Those measures are not only worrisome, local school officials say, they feel some pose definite threats.

The deadline to propose new bills was Wednesday, said Kirby Eisenhauer, the Campbell County School District’s associate superintendent for instructional support.

So far, the addition of three new bills that would require constitutional amendments approved by Wyoming voters worries him.

“There’s some that are pretty serious,” he told the school trustees Tuesday night.

Prohibit court involvement

One, House Joint Resolution 9, is sponsored by Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, and would prohibit courts from requiring school funding beyond that prescribed by law.

“I would classify this as a threat,” Eisenhauer said.

“This amendment would prohibit a court of the state of Wyoming from requiring the imposition of a tax or tax increase, or other funding, in order to provide additional monies to fund schools beyond taxes and other funding prescribed by law,” he said.

“This amendment (also) specifies that the Legislature will determine the adequacy of funding for public schools,” Eisnehauer added.

Basically, he said the measure would remove courts from school funding issues, “which is interesting, to say the least. It’s something we will pay attention to.”

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, also has proposed a constitutional amendment to fund Wyoming’s K-12 schools by taking the spending per pupil in surrounding states, gathering an average and paying 100 to 110 percent of that for education.

Eisenhauer estimated that bill would cut school funding in Wyoming by $400 million to $500 million.

“It would eliminate programs, staff and schools,” he said. “Most small schools would become victims of efficiency. … We would have forced consolidation. I believe that’s what this one would do.”

He produced a map showing states’ rainy day funds produced by The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2017. The map showed how many days states could run on rainy day funds alone.

While Wyoming could operate for more than a year — 400.5 days — Colorado could do so for only 18.3 days, Utah for 28.5, South Dakota for 35.8, Idaho for 31.2 and Nebraska for 63.6. No data was reported in Montana.

“The Wyoming taxpayer has done their job. The money is sitting in the bank or being spent on other things,” Eisenhauer said.

Wyoming is a rural state, and as such, it is more expensive to provide education to small schools than in surrounding states, he said. One district in Denver has more students than all of Wyoming, he pointed out.

“I thought this was a bit of an eye opener,” Eisenhauer said.

He again spoke in favor of House Resolution 4, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette, who has proposed taking money that usually is deposited in the Common School Account — another of those Wyoming savings accounts for the future — for five years to help pay for education. That fund has $3.6 billion in it now, and his proposal would take only the money to be invested in the account over those five years — not the savings already there.

Hallinan’s measure, with eight co-sponsors, also would require approval of Wyoming voters to amend the state constitution and $100 million in school funding cuts, he has said.

Eisenhauer said the proposal makes more sense because it includes an additional revenue source to fund K-12 education.

“I don’t know what we’re trying to get to … maybe 800 days? Rather than build up savings, we could use some of this temporarily. … Hopefully, this will gain some traction,” he said.

Finally, a third resolution sponsored by Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, would transfer the responsibility to construct school facilities from the state and return it to school districts.

Districts would have to have local voter approval to pass bonds to pay for new school facilities. The measure also would require amending the state constitution, so Wyoming voters would have to approve it.

Under his resolution, the state would provide financing to ensure that the mill levy raises as much per person as it would if applied to the average per person valuation of the state as a whole.

“The system enacted by the Legislature to comply with the Wyoming Supreme Court decision no longer works because the funding source the Legislature relied on (primarily bidding bonuses from new coal leases) no longer yields significant revenue,” according to Scott’s resolution. “The Legislature also reports the new system has been quite expensive because the Legislature is not as good a judge of the need for local school facilities as the voters of the school districts.

“This amendment will return school capital construction to a local system with the addition of mandatory state aid.”

If the state doesn’t fund that aid, the state board of equalization could propose a statewide mill levy to do so.

The amendment also authorizes the Legislature to appropriate additional money to relieve undue hardships and to pay for maintenance of school facilities.

“That’s interesting coming from Natrona,” Eisenhauer said of the proposal.

The state has just finished work on a new high school in Casper and major additions and construction at Natrona County High School and Kelly Walsh as well.

That school district also has announced it will close three elementary schools and a junior high over the next year because of enrollment drops.

“We’ll keep an eye on that as well,” Eisenhauer said of the proposal.