Analysis: The harsh economic landscape of Wyoming's K-12 education system

·9 min read

Oct. 17—CHEYENNE — As the economic landscape of Wyoming changes, so does one of the most equitable education systems in the country.

The two once supported each other with great success. The oil and mining industry was robust and led to a sustainable distribution of state funding, leaving taxpayers with little responsibility to pay for a quality education.

But consumption of oil, gas and coal has declined, and with that, so has the ability for the Wyoming Legislature to support the nearly $17,000 it spends per student every year. Economic pressures, such as inflation and new market-value costs for teachers, technology and materials, are also eating away at the funds.

And although the bill for education continues to rise, state legislators and politicians no longer want to support an increase in the budget. Within the meetings of the Joint Education Interim Committee and the Select Committee on School Facilities, there are debates as to whether districts are inappropriately distributing their funds, rather than what it truly costs to fully function.

Even Gov. Mark Gordon recommended cutting funding to the state's K-12 block grant by nearly $100 million earlier this year. That proposal died in the committee in April, but Gordon said, "It is not clear that more money necessarily equates to better education, or that less does either."

Those words do not match the message coming from superintendents, administrators and teachers who walk into their school buildings each day and look at the receipts.

They're saying it's not enough.

Spending more than they receive

Over the past five years, the Wyoming Department of Education has continually reported school districts spend more than what is budgeted by the state Legislature's funding model on critical expenses.

The statewide average for actual expenditures in the 2020-21 school year for utilities, technology and supplies was nearly 4% above model suggestions. For central office and miscellaneous district costs, it was 8% higher.

Those may seem like small percentages in the grand scheme of things, but they amount to a deficit of millions of dollars. If an expenditure is 4% above the model, it means costs were $2 million more than expected.

And the most stark difference in expenditures was in student activities. Spending across the state for after-school programs, including sports, was at 122.6% of the state model, which means it was 22.6% above the recommended budget allocation.

And when the cost of technology, supplies and student activities is more than the funding model, the state doesn't provide additional financial support. Instead, members of the local Board of Trustees and superintendents must look at their budget and decide which areas will be cut to make up the difference.

Professional development costs and supplies for career and technical programs have historically been cut back to almost half of what would be expected. Although this can be harmful to providing a quality education, career and technical programs have been able to find outside funding from grants and by lobbying the Legislature.

But sometimes the money can't be found elsewhere.

In the case of Laramie County School District 1, expenditures for school activities were more than 40% above the funding model, and it became a burden on other critical expenses. This resulted in the cancellation of all elementary-level sports for the current school year, which is not an uncommon first level cut.

"We have, as a district, incurred decreases in state funding, and we've adapted," LCSD1 financial director Jed Cicarelli said. "And we've taken steps to control budgetary pressures."

Adapting doesn't just mean moving money around, though. It also can mean reductions in staff and losing community and after-school programs. School officials said they don't want to make those kinds of difficult decisions, but they have to.

This is not due to negligence or irresponsible spending, they say. Every sector of Wyoming is feeling the cost pressures associated with inflation and supply chain shortages, and schools have not been immune.

The cost of gas, utilities, supplies and health care have risen exponentially, and there has not been a substantial external cost adjustment in more than a decade to counterbalance those increases. The Wyoming Legislature would have to add $72 million to the education budget this year in order to accommodate the current market value of those expenditures.

The Joint Education Interim Committee made that recommendation to the Joint Appropriations Committee at its meeting this past week, asking legislators to consider the adjustment in upcoming negotiations concerning the statewide 2023-24 biennium budget.

"This is vital to us as a district," said Cicarelli. "Those external cost adjustments can provide millions of dollars to the district, just to try to maintain the same level of operating costs that we have the year before and the year before that."

But lawmakers like Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, and co-chairman of the Education Committee, disagree. He voted against the external cost adjustment at Monday's meeting.

"I think there was enough in the expenditures as they already are to cover this, and then some, without doing any harm to the existing districts," Scott said.

Harder to recruit, retain teachers

If approved, the external cost adjustment may even give districts the opportunity to raise the base pay for teachers. In Laramie County, teachers have not seen an increase to the salary schedule in more than five years. Cicarelli said that is a direct result of the lack of external cost adjustments.

Other counties across Wyoming are struggling in the same way. The entire state hasn't experienced a significant raise in teacher wages since 2012, which is contradictory to the 3% annual increase in salary for parallel professional occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

That has made it difficult to maintain a competitive and fair wage for not only teachers, but employees such as bus drivers and maintenance staff, as well. This has contributed to a lack of employee retention and hiring difficulties.

Charles Auzqui, a superintendent in Johnson County, said the pool of applicants is progressively shrinking. For multiple positions open in his county, there are almost no candidates. He and other superintendents said they previously saw more than a hundred applicants for one job.

But conditions in Wyoming have changed since then.

The National Education Association reported the state once paid more than 27% above the premium for teachers' salaries, and now it pays 10% above. The surrounding states have caught up, and Auzqui said the allure of higher pay is not enough.

"One of the biggest challenges we have in rural Wyoming is the paying of those high-quality teachers to stick around," he said.

The cost of living is the highest it has been, and there are unique obstacles to address when recruiting. Auzqui said teachers often have to reflect on whether their spouse will also be able to get a job in smaller communities, how they will travel in and out of the state easily during the winter and where the closest hospital is when starting a family.

He said higher compensation can help convince candidates to take a chance. Yet, a slightly higher-than-average salary is not convincing some to stay, according to Wyoming Education Association government relations specialist Tate Mullen.

In a survey completed by the statewide teachers union this summer, more than 90% of members said they were unsatisfied with the conditions facing educators, and a fifth are considering leaving the state.

"My soul is tired," one teacher wrote. "I work so hard to be a beacon of light for my students. I want them to know that education is the ultimate path to success. However, the constant negativity from the public and legislation that is always targeting educators is driving me out."

Many others who completed the survey expressed their discontent, and that as teachers are continually cut from the budget, the work doubles and the pay lessens.

Mullen said this is the story he consistently hears from the administrators, teachers and faculty he is advocating for. He said they don't feel supported by their own representatives, and not only are they personally impacted by the financial decisions made, their ability to do their jobs effectively is inhibited by them.

The result has been massive turnover across the state, early retirements and a real burnout felt by educational staff.

"Education has been under attack in this state for quite awhile," he said.

Grants help support certain segments

But there are still some teachers who have a different perspective and are choosing to stay.

Joshua Miller is a second-generation teacher in Buffalo and focuses on career and technical programs. He loves his job and his facility, and said he never wanted to teach anywhere else outside the state.

He said he has witnessed the strain on his fellow colleagues, but his environment as a CTE teacher is different. He has experienced less of the cost pressures associated with the educational budget right now, due to the high number of grants available for his field.

Even when the funds can't provide brand new equipment or supplies, he said teachers get creative. They will always use what they have to provide the best education to students and think outside of the box.

And when it comes to the Legislature, he said there have been great conversations with representatives, and he believes Wyoming is taking care of its teachers.

Nonetheless, he said the cost of almost every product and service is continually rising, and it would be common sense to increase the budget to keep providing a quality education. He said it should evolve over time.

"Personally, I've never shied away from investing more in education," he said. "But I'm also not the person signing the checks."

The state is the one signing the checks, for the most part, and it's not a small bill. On average, more than 60% of funding for districts comes from the Legislature. This is the result of counties not being able to provide proper financing because of inadequate tax collections.

And due to the decline of the mineral and oil extraction industries, counties once deemed recapturing districts are now turning into entitlement districts. This means they no longer collect ad valorem taxes on the industry revenue, which would previously provide more than enough for their school district's needs and send some back to the state to redistribute.

There is also little support coming from the national level. K-12 schools in Wyoming were reported to receive only $116.5 million from the federal government this year, compared to the $1.04 billion coming from the state.

All of this makes for difficult conversations as legislators prepare for the 2022 budget session. Some argue an economic cost adjustment is valid and funding should increase, while others say it isn't needed.

But like the districts sacrificing services and staff for their budget, the state has to decide what it will do with its own this year.

Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's education reporter. She can be reached by email at jhall@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.

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