Time to talk education funding

Governor pushing for public discussion on education funding shortfall

By Sarah Pridgeon

Wyoming is facing the loss of a third of its annual education funding, so what are we going to do about it? This is the conversation that Governor Matt Mead wants to kick-start in communities across the state.

Policy Director Mary Kay Hill, who advises the Governor on education issues from preschool through workforce, explained last week that the funding shortfall will be significant and the state needs to look at its options to either scale down the education budget or replace some of the revenue that has been lost.

K-12 funding comes largely from federal mineral royalties, Hill said. School construction, meanwhile, comes mainly from coal lease bonus payments that have been used to fund $3 billion in new school buildings across the state.

“We received our last coal lease bonus in June; we don’t have any projections for another coal lease bonus payment out there…There’s not a nickel to build new schools once we leave this biennium,” Hill explained.

“K-12 schools, by the same token, are looking at a $360-400 million funding deficit each year.”
That $400 million, Hill explained, represents about a $1.4 billion total expenditure. The total loss is expected to represent around a third of funding for schools.

The Governor, said Hill, believes that every voice in Wyoming needs to be heard before action is taken. It’s going to be vital for every community to join the conversation, she said.

“Do we believe we’ve been spending too much on education? Have we been spending 30 percent more than we needed? Do you believe we need to raise taxes to pay for the difference?” she said.

“How much are you willing to spend for that? What kind of funds are you willing to contribute to the process?”

The Governor said in his State of the State speech that he believes there needs to be a statewide public process that leads to a consensus on what value should be placed on education and how to fund it, Hill said.

“We’ve been proud to be able to have teacher salaries that were the second highest in the nation, per pupil expenditures that were among the highest in the nation. That’s been important to us,” she said.

“Is it still important to us and, if it is, what are we willing to do to achieve that bottom line?”

The Governor himself has not ruled out any possibilities, including an increase in taxes, but will refrain from taking a position until the conversation has concluded, Hill said.

“He believes so strongly that the public process has to come to some consensus that he doesn’t want to unduly influence that public conversation by taking a position one way or another. He would like to see a public dialogue transpire,” she stated.

“He believes that, when you put employers and industry and educators and taxpayers and parents all in a room, the wisdom of the people will come up with the appropriate solutions.”