Saying Wyoming lawmakers haven’t upheld a court mandate to provide an “unsurpassed” and equitable schools system, an educators group sued the state on Thursday.
The Wyoming Education Association filed a legal complaint on Thursday in Laramie County District Court, accusing the Wyoming Legislature of shirking its duty to provide enough money for schools amid record-high inflation. A collective of about 6,000 advocates for Wyoming’s elementary and secondary schools, the association is asking the court to make the Wyoming Legislature give the state’s K-12 schools more money for competitive hiring, better equipment, more school counselors and other reported needs.
‘Visionary And Unsurpassed’
The Wyoming Constitution promises a fundamental right to a “complete and uniform” public education system funded by the state Legislature. The constitution should make the state Legislature provide a “thorough… visionary and unsurpassed” education system, according to a court ruling in a 2001 lawsuit between Wyoming and the Campbell County School District.
Using that language and other rulings like it, the Wyoming Education Association’s 71-page complaint alleges that the state has not lived up to its mandate, that it has not allowed schools to deal with recent teacher shortages, and that it may no longer use vanishing coal revenues and other changes as a reason not to do so.
“Supporting an opportunity for a complete, proper, quality education is the legislature’s paramount priority,” reads the suit. “Competing priorities not of constitutional magnitude are secondary, and the Legislature may not yield to them until constitutionally sufficient provision is made for elementary and secondary education.”
Teacher Salaries Flatter
The Legislature routinely hires funding consultants to make expense recommendations to the state’s schools. It then gives each school district a block grant, that is, a lump of money the school can distribute as it sees fit.
One of the chief complaints in the association’s lawsuit is that the state’s block grant doesn’t provide adequate funding for teachers’ salaries.
School districts generally have used their state funding to raise superintendent salaries at a faster rate than teachers’ salaries. They have raised the average teacher salary by 6.2%, or $3,501, since 2011. The average teacher salary in 2021 was $60,235.
In the same timeframe, school districts have raised the average superintendent’s salary by 8.7%, or $11,287, to a 2021 average of $141,358.
Assistant superintendents’ salaries have grown by 9.8% over a decade – from the 2011 average of $122,507 to the 2021 average of $134,453.
Principals have seen an 8.8% salary gain in the past decade, from $92,416 average to $100,561 average.
Wyoming’s two-year budget from its main account, the general appropriations account, is just 0.8% higher this year than it was in 2010. It has risen from the 2010 budget of $2.85 billion to the $2.87 billion appropriated this spring.
The school foundation account to fund K-12 operations, however, grew by 12.4% during the same timeframe, from $1.6 billion to nearly $1.8 billion, according to data from the Legislature’s website.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon noted this distinction in his public statement regarding the association’s lawsuit.
“Over the past few years Wyoming has had to make record cuts to almost all services other than K-12 education. So it is unfortunate that this lawsuit comes at this time,” said Gordon’s office in a prepared statement, adding that the governor’s 2021 education advisory panel, called “Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education” is now “in full swing.”
“While the Governor recognizes that a thorough examination of our K-12 funding system may be necessary, he would prefer to work on that outside of the courts,” the statement continues.
Now that the suit is filed, the Wyoming Attorney General has the responsibility of defending the Legislature’s funding model.