Wyoming Schools Could Get $68 Million Boost To Deal With Inflation

Wyoming's Joint Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a $68 million annual payout for elementary and secondary schools to adjust for inflation. If approved, this would add to the $1.6 billion the schools receive yearly.

CM
Clair McFarland

October 26, 20235 min read

Natrona County High School
Natrona County High School (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming's legislative Joint Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a $68 million annual payout to catch the state’s elementary and secondary schools up to the higher costs of inflation.  

If approved by the Legislature, the inflationary catch-up would add to the roughly $1.6 billion the schools receive yearly for their operations.  

The $68 million includes, roughly:

  • A 14.7% rise for energy costs ($7.4 million).

  • A 21.85% increase in materials costs ($30.3 million).

  • A 3.9% increase for professional staff ($25.2 million).

  • A 4.1 % increase in provision for non-professional staff ($5.1 million).

Joint Appropriations Committee member Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, asked during Wednesday’s meeting why the highest spike, for educational materials, is such an “outlier” at $30.3 million.  

Matt Willmarth, Legislative Service Office senior school finance analyst, said the money is meant to catch schools up from the “COVID hangover” of expensive and unavailable supplies in the months right after the COVID-19 pandemic. Willmarth was relating the statement from a consultant’s Sept. 27 presentation to the Joint Education Committee.  

All members of the Joint Appropriations Committee voted in favor of the adjustment except for Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton.  

Law Says ‘Shall’ 

Under state law, the Education Committee reviews the inflationary demands on schools and decides whether to approve extra money for those. It then forwards its approval to the Appropriations Committee which, if it approves the payout, forwards that request to the governor and the Legislature.  

Because of a series of cases in which Wyoming’s courts ordered the Legislature to use a cost-based approach to fund public schools, state law commands lawmakers to keep its schools on pace with inflation.  

The Legislature may decline to give out the $68 million, but it’s a gamble: Someone could sue the Legislature for not complying with its stringent education funding laws. 

The odds of that happening are “high,” Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, told Cowboy State Daily after the meeting.  

“If we were projecting large deficits, then refusing to grant an ECA (external cost adjustment) would be more defensible,” said Stith.  

But the state’s account for school funding has an extra $660 million on hand, Stith added, so “that excuse does not work.”  

Indeed, Wyoming is being sued now by the Wyoming Education Association, which is a school lobby and advocacy group, and by a handful of school districts that allege Wyoming is underfunding public education.  

But Can It Go Down? 

Appropriations Co-Chair Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, asked if consultants’ adjustment requests would be just as faithful to decrease with inflation as they are to rise with it.  

“Does that number come down when inflation comes down?” asked Nethercott. “Because that would be ‘cost-based.’”  

Willmarth said the figures for energy and materials costs are based on national indices, whereas the staff costs are based on Wyoming factors. And each request would follow the factors on which it’s based, he said.  

The cost indices for energy were negative in 2021, Willmarth continued.  

But this year’s $68 million increase, if approved, will continue to be part of the school budget going forward until a “recalibration” process. Recalibration is the process by which the Legislature reevaluates all its K-12 education costs and adopts a new school budget.  

Not As Many Students Lately 

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House side of the committee, had a back-and-forth with Jed Cicarelli, chief financial officer for Cheyenne-based Laramie County School District No. 1, over why that district has had more staff and fewer students lately.  

LCSD 1’s enrollment went down by 26 students between 2017 and 2022. Nearly every school in Wyoming lost student population over that timespan, with Sweetwater County School District No. 1 experiencing the largest loss at 633 fewer students.  

As for the Cheyenne school district, Cicarelli said fewer kindergarteners have been entering the school system in recent years.  

LCSD 1 has added 123 staffers since 2017, Nicholas noted, referencing a data sheet provided at the meeting.  

Those were paid for with federal COVID-19 stimulus money, Cicarelli said, for things like behavioral support, academic intervention and instructional loss mitigation.  

“Now that we’re post-COVID, do a lot of those go away?” asked Nicholas.  

“That’s absolutely correct. A lot of those programs we have transitioned off these funds,” answered Cicarelli.

In fact, the CFO added, the school district is experiencing shortages in “hard-to-fill positions” like special education and school psychologists. He said districts in northern Colorado have been making their wages more competitive to fill those spots.  

Insurance 

Cicarelli had bemoaned rising costs for schools, especially in property, hazard and liability insurance. All Wyoming schools have “felt the pinch” of it, he said.  

“Not because we haven’t taken efforts (to manage it),” said Cicarelli. “We’ve adjusted our deductibles to try to control costs. We’ve developed contingencies to try to nip away at those ever-increasing costs on our insurance coverage.”  

Property insurance alone for the district has risen by $1 million over the past four years, Cicarelli added.  

He said energy costs are also “compounding,” not seeing one-time increases.  

Counties Will Help 

Stith noted during the meeting that some of the $68 million will come from local revenues.  

Last year, the Legislature gave the schools an extra $70 million for inflation, and the state paid about $58 million of that from its own coffers while local governments paid the other $12 million, Stith told Cowboy State Daily later. He said he expects a similar split if this adjustment passes. 

Wyoming's upcoming budget session convenes in February 2024.

Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

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