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Education Most Pressing Issue Of Session, Gordon Says In State of the State

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Maintaining the state’s quality of education is the most important issue facing the Legislature during its general session, Gov. Mark Gordon said Tuesday.

Gordon, in delivering his “state of the state” address to a joint session of the Legislature, told lawmakers the state could no longer rely on traditional sources of revenue to support education.

“We have relied, for years, on a funding model that is no longer sustainable,” he said. “The handwriting is on the wall. The can we kick down the road every year is broken. We have to deal with this issue.”

With the slump in the state’s mineral industry, particularly in coal production, funding for the state and its schools has dropped sharply. The school funding bill making its way through the Legislature would cut millions of dollars in how much the state gives to its schools and proposes new taxes if necessary to maintain funding.

But Gordon urged lawmakers, as they look at resolving the funding problems facing schools, to look at the issue more broadly than just one of revenue shortfalls.

“This is far more than a budget issue and I want our stakeholders and our communities to be involved in establishing a plan and vision,” he said.

Among the ideas he endorsed was a consolidation of early childhood learning programs, now found in four separate state agencies, into two agencies, the departments of Education and Family Services.

He also discussed the value of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a program launched in January to improve collaboration between the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges to better prepare students for the workplace.

“Education is changing,” he said. “Work is changing. People want, and need, more opportunities and approaches. Wyoming needs to respond. We know our financial challenges will likely necessitate it.”

Education was one of a number of issues Gordon touched upon during his address, which was delivered on the second day of the Legislature’s one-month in-person session.

Gordon also discussed the state’s financial problems, which forced him to cut state spending by $250 million in 2020 and propose another $500 million in budget cuts in his supplemental budget.

“Undeniably, we are entering more frugal times and we will have to continue to temper wants and emphasize needs,” he told lawmakers. “It is now your turn to consider how best to meet the needs of our people without burdening the generations to come.”

Much of the state’s financial troubles can be traced to slumps in the state’s energy and mineral industries and Gordon said the policies of President Joe Biden could further threaten those industries.

“In just a few weeks, through a series of executive orders, cabinet appointments and policy announcements, we are facing a clear and present threat to our long-term core industries,” he said. “All decisions from D.C. must now pass a superficial, climate litmus test that ignores jobs, cost, reliability and in many cases, real climate solutions. In D.C., they claim to follow the science, but they adopt policies that resemble science fiction.”

Gordon said while he looks forward to the contributions the wind and solar power industries can make to the state, he continues to support a diversified approach to meeting power needs.

“To achieve meaningful climate goals, and provide a resilient affordable energy supply, fossil fuels, coupled with a commitment to improving the ways we utilize them, must remain a substantial supply option,” he said. “I will continue to fight for our state’s future and defend the right to responsibly develop all of our resources.”

Despite financial problems and the continuing coronavirus pandemic, the state is strong, Gordon said, adding that the Legislature will need to remain focused to help move Wyoming past the pandemic with legislation aimed at encouraging existing businesses, economic development and luring new business to the state.

“I am sure there will be temptations to get sidetracked with politically oriented legislation, but this year, we have to keep our eye on the ball,” he said. “Because we are only going to have one chance to turn this welcomed spring into a thriving summer and a bountiful future.”

Gordon thanked the state’s residents, particularly state employees, health care workers and teachers, for their hard to work to keep the state moving during the worst of the past year.

“Today I can say, with pride and confidence, that the state of our state is strong,” he said. “Not because our economy is as robust as it was a year ago, for that’s certainly not the case. Not because we are free of this dreadful virus, because it is still a pain. Not because we have solved all of our budget problems, for we have yet to face that piper.

“It is because we are the people we are: weathered, tested and resilient,” he continued. “We are a stubborn people, unwilling to concede during tough times. It is that resolute spirit that is our greatest asset. That, I believe, will see us through these times.”

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Community College District Wants $3M For Sheridan College If Gillette College Approved; Legislator Disappointed

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Officials with the Northern Wyoming Community College District are asking that Sheridan College be given $3 million per year in state funds if a new community college district is established to support Gillette College.

Walter Tribley, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, sent a letter to several legislators on Friday urging them to make the allocation part of a bill that would create the new Gillette Community College District.

Sheridan College and Gillette College are now part of the Northern Wyoming Community College District. Tribley, in his letter to legislators supporting the bill, Gov. Mark Gordon and community college officials, said if Gillette College wins its own district, Sheridan College will lose $3 million a year.

“Without this assurance, a bill to create a new college district would irreparably harm one of the mainstays of education in Wyoming, Sheridan College,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Cowboy State Daily.

However, Tribley’s letter, delivered just days before the bill is scheduled to get a hearing in the Senate Education Committee, came as a surprise to one of the bill’s primary sponsors, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.

“To me, if there’s going to be a discussion about any harm that’s been done to Sheridan College, it needs to be done after Campbell County has voted to become an independent community college district,” he said Saturday. “To throw it in now seems to me to be very premature.”

Backers of the new district have been working since the summer to clear the hurdles necessary for its creation. The Wyoming Community College Commission in November approved Campbell County’s application for the district. The district’s creation must now be approved by the Legislature and then by the voters of Campbell County.

The bill providing legislative approval, Senate File 83, is to be reviewed by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

In his letter, Tribley said he has been publicly supportive of the concept, but he felt he needs to speak up to point out the problems the new district would cause for Sheridan College, chief among them the reduction of income.

“This negative consequence has been ignored and/or dismissed by those who so adamantly support a division,” he wrote. “We must stop ignoring this inconvenient truth and begin moving toward a solution.”

“We are far enough along in this process, I would truly like to see the conversation arrive at a point where both I and the NWCCD Board of Trustees could support welcoming an eighth community college in Gillette to our system in a way that ensures both the new and existing colleges a solid opportunity for success,” he added.

Tribley proposed the $3 million annual allocation would be in place for five years or until the new district receives accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, whichever comes first. The Higher Learning Commission accredits community college and universities in a 19-state region.

Accreditation is required for Gillette College to become independent of Sheridan College. Wasserburger said while accreditation is normally a three- to six-year process, officials believe they can win accreditation within three years because Gillette College’s programs have already been accredited through Sheridan College.

In exchange for the funding, Tribley said, Sheridan College will distribute to Gillette College any revenue generated by enrollment there and help the new college toward success.

“By providing stability funding to Sheridan College, it would ensure a healthy partner to help shepherd Gillette College toward a successful beginning as a standalone district,” the letter said. “Without such support, it would cripple the ability of Sheridan College to continue collaborative work throughout the state.”

Tribley told the sponsors of the bill that if they did not respond to him by noon Monday, he would take that as an indication they do not support his position.

Wasserburger took exception to the deadline, especially given the fact that such funding decisions are ultimately made by the Joint Appropriations Committee.

“I was very saddened by the letter,” he said. “I felt that the letter was inappropriate. I can’t say the Legislature will give $15 million to Sheridan College. What he is asking me to do, I am powerless to do.”

Feb. 19, 2021

Dear Sen.’s Wasserburger and Driskill and Rep.’s Barlow and Harshman,

In response to the next step in the effort to separate Gillette College from the Northern Wyoming Community College District, I have made every effort to offer advice, engage in dialogue, and generally attempt to refrain from being any type of barrier or naysayer. I have publicly applauded Campbell County for supporting its college so strongly. I have and will continue to put the interests of all current and future students, whether they are in Johnson, Campbell, or Sheridan Counties, at the center of my decision-making.

At this time, SF0083, as it is currently written, is not something I can support. Nor can I remain silent any longer. It has been calculated both by our own CFO and by the Wyoming Community College Commission CFO that, should a split happen, Sheridan College stands to lose approximately $3 million in funding annually without an immediate means to recover this loss. The $3 million contributes in part to infrastructure-related costs that remain and will be downsized considerably through the transition. This negative consequence has been ignored and/or dismissed by those who so adamantly support a division. We must stop ignoring this inconvenient truth and begin moving toward a solution.

I am not one to think that if the current effort fails, this will be the end of the attempts to separate, or that our partnership will not be strained, potentially to the point of jeopardizing student access and success. We are far enough along in this process, I would truly like to see the conversation arrive at a point where both I and the NWCCD Board of Trustees could support welcoming an eighth community college in Gillette to our system in a way that ensures both the new and existing colleges a solid opportunity for success.

To get there, I would ask that you amend SF0083 to include $3 million annually in transitional funding for Sheridan College for a period of five years or until the new college district receives accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, whichever happens first. In return, Sheridan College would distribute to the new college district, through an MOU, the revenue generated by enrollment at Gillette College. This would allow the new administration the opportunity to plan realistically as they put in place a workforce and the systems needed to earn accreditation status. These are the beginnings of a contractual relationship that would exist between the two colleges during the transition period. More details will need to be worked out, but service to students must remain the top priority and all students deserve stability and certainty.

By providing stability funding to Sheridan College, it would ensure a healthy partner to help shepherd Gillette College toward a successful beginning as a standalone district. Without such support, it would cripple the ability of Sheridan College to continue collaborative work with partners throughout the State. A key example would be our role in a consortia with Central Wyoming College and Eastern Wyoming College on a mobile meat processing program. Another example includes SC playing a leadership role in the programming underlying a successful launch of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a key first initiative being a statewide software development program whose curriculum is largely being developed by SC faculty. Without this assurance, a bill to create a new college district would irreparably harm one of the mainstays of education in Wyoming, Sheridan College.

There is urgency in my request. We may have a special Board of Trustees meeting early this week to discuss this bill. I am happy to engage with you in the effort to make SF0083 successful and something that will work for Wyoming. I would ask for your specific feedback per my request by 12:00 p.m., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Receiving no response will be recognized as unsupportive. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Walter A. Tribley, PhD

President, Northern Wyoming Community College District

Cc: Governor Gordon; Lachelle Brant, Governor’s Education Policy Advisor; Campbell, Johnson, and Sheridan County Legislators; NWCCD Board of Trustees; Gillette College Advisory Board; Sheridan College in Johnson County Advisory Board; Community College Presidents; Wyoming Community College Commission Executive Director Sandy Caldwell; Erin Taylor, Wyoming Assoc. of Community College Trustees Executive Director; Campbell County Commissioners; Mayor of Gillette; NWCCD Cabinet; NWCCD Attorney

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Balow, Other State Superintendents Ask Biden to Reconsider Energy Lockdown

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has joined four other western state school superintendents in asking President Joe Biden to reconsider his recent energy lockdown.

Balow was joined by her colleagues from North Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Utah in sending a letter to the president telling him the moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands would decimate school funding in their states.

“It is unusual that state education leaders would be in a position to warrant this letter,” send the letter, which was sent Wednesday. “We write to oppose the actions taken to ban oil and gas leases on federal land and to curtail production and transmission of the commodities.”

Biden issued an executive order in late January halting new oil and gas leasing on federal land to allow the Department of Interior to conduct a comprehensive review of the federal leasing program and existing fossil fuel leases.

But the school chiefs noted that in their states, schools depend on income from energy production.

“As state education chiefs we have appreciated generous access to your education transition team and we had multiple opportunities to discuss schools safely reopening, student well-being, and academic priorities,” the letter said. “It is imperative that we bring to light the arbitrary and inequitable move to shut down oil and gas production on federal lands in our states that depend on revenues from various taxes, royalties, disbursements, and lease payments to fund our schools, community infrastructure and public services.”

The letter specifically noted that in Wyoming, the oil and natural gas industry contributed $740 million in K-12 education funding and $28 million to the state’s higher education system in 2019.

Almost all, 92%, of Wyoming’s natural gas comes from federal lands, as does 51% of the oil produced in the state.

“The ban translates into the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for education and 13,300 direct jobs in a state of 500,000,” the letter said.

For Montana, $30 million in revenue and more than 3,000 jobs are at risk because of the moratorium, the letter said.

In North Dakota, the lease moratorium would result in 13,000 lost jobs over four years, along with $600 million in lost tax revenue and a $750 million loss in personal income. North Dakota’s oil and gas industry accounts for 24,000 direct jobs in the state.

In Utah, $72 million in revenue and 11,000 jobs are at stake. 

In Alaska, over $24 million in state revenue is tied to federal leases for oil and natural gas, along with 3,500 jobs.

“As state education chiefs, we place equity and quality at the forefront of policy making,” the letter said. “We care deeply about clean air and clean water for future generations. And, we advocate fiercely for adequate funding for all students in all schools. Reform of the industry is necessary and can be accomplished, but not by abruptly restricting industries that define our culture and the generate revenue on which so many rely.” 

A University of Wyoming study commissioned by the Legislature concluded that a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal land could reduce Wyoming’s production by $872 million per year, costing the state more than $300 million a year in tax revenue.

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Rep. Albert Sommers: Don’t Blame Education For Reductions to General Funded State Agencies

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By Rep. Albert Sommers, Sublette Examiner

In Wyoming newspapers recently, articles related to K12 education funding have referred to our “Cadillac education system,” and have quoted a legislator claiming that “Everything we cut out of every agency, every program – mental health, substance abuse treatment, tax exemptions for veterans, home health care for seniors – all that money we cut just flows right into K12 education.”

Let me address the last statement first. We have a $300 million annual deficit in K12 education funding, but Wyoming’s “Rainy Day” account, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), is the backstop for education funding.

When traditional revenues for K12 education are insufficient, we make up that shortfall by utilizing our savings, the LSRA. Wyoming is not cutting mental health services or any agency of state government and putting that money towards education funding.

This statement is simply not true. We can’t blame education funding for the reductions happening to the General Funded state agencies. Wyoming does have a shortfall in education funding, we are eroding our savings and we need to solve this challenge before our savings are gone.

As to the first statement, a “Cadillac education system” implies that we are driving a luxury model, but I disagree.

School finance in Wyoming has a long, complicated history that includes five significant Supreme Court decisions, with subsequent efforts by the Legislature to ensure that Wyoming’s K12 funding remains cost-based, while providing an adequate/equitable education to every child in Wyoming.

The State of Wyoming lost parts of four Supreme Court cases because the state either refused to provide an equitable funding model (Washakie decision) or refused to provide adequate K12 funding (Campbell decisions).

The Wyoming Supreme Court found that the State was NOT meeting its Constitutional mandate to our children in four different decisions. Finally, in the 2008 Campbell IV decision, the court ruled that “the legislature has in place a thorough and efficient educational structure funded from state wealth as required by our state constitution.”

Due to these court decisions, the Legislature goes through a process every five years to ensure that K12 funding remains adequate and equitable, or put more simply, remains constitutional. This legislative process is called recalibration, which means the Legislature is to recalibrate the funding model based upon current information. 

Wyoming hired a consultant firm, Picus and Oden, during the 2005 recalibration effort, and their funding model, with modifications, has been utilized to fund K12 education from that date forward. 

Picus and Oden identifies the elements of an adequate/equitable model and how much these elements cost, and then these consultants provide the Legislature with a model they believe meets the constitutional standard that the Wyoming Supreme Court required. 

This model is provided to school districts as a block grant, which means local school boards can determine the best way to utilize those funds based upon local priorities. Initially in 2005, the Legislature funded the modified Picus and Oden model more richly than the consultants recommended, and this lasted through 2017. 

However, in 2018 the resources provided by the Legislative model dropped to the level of the consultant’s (constitutional) model. In essence, since 2018 we have arguably been funding education at its constitutional level. You can call this funding system a Cadillac, an F-350 or whatever you want, but this is the vehicle the Supreme Court mandated Wyoming to drive.

In 2020, the Legislature fulfilled its obligation by conducting a recalibration of the K12 funding model, utilizing the same consultants, Picus and Oden, who have provided Wyoming a constitutional model since 2005. 

After months of study by multiple consulting firms, Picus and Oden produced their new Evidenced-Based funding model. This new Evidenced-Based model would cost the State about $21 million more than the current Legislative model. 

Further, in their official report, Picus and Oden wrote, “The revenue declines have challenged the Legislature. And by extension, our team of researchers have searched for the most cost-effective options to provide the elements of the basket of goods and services.” 

When pressed in committee, the consultants stated that their model provided the most cost-efficient means of providing a constitutional K12 funding model for Wyoming. Picus and Oden view their model as the minimum needed to provide an adequate/equitable education to every child in Wyoming.

I served as co-chairman of the Recalibration Committee and we passed HB61 as a vehicle to start a discussion in Wyoming about K12 funding. 

The bill reduces the current Legislative model by $100 million (6.5 percent) and references a sales tax for education. Can the Legislature reduce K12 funding below what the consultants recommend and remain constitutional? Perhaps. 

Can the Legislature cut the entire $300 million shortfall (20 percent) from education funding and maintain a constitutional K12 funding system? Absolutely not. 

There is more than one solution to this education funding shortfall. My solution would be to reduce spending, divert some streams of money headed for savings, continue to spend from the “Rainy Day” fund and impose a one-cent sales tax for education that would go into effect only after the “Rainy Day” fund is reduced to $650 million. 

When or if this “penny for education” is implemented, it will be important to protect local government’s sales tax options. I would hope the Supreme Court would view a comprehensive solution favorably, but that is up to them.

I will not support efforts to downgrade the constitutional priority of education through amendments to Wyoming’s Constitution. 

Roughly, 92,000 children are served by nearly 19,000 employees in over 300 schools in nearly every town in our state. 

In my opinion, education is the most important service that government provides to its citizens. 

Our Supreme Court stated in Campbell II (2001), “In addition to holding the constitution requires an equal educational opportunity for all Wyoming children, this court, in Campbell, held our constitution commands the legislature “to provide and fund an education system which is of a quality ‘appropriate for the times’” and that command goes well beyond simply allowing the legislature to dispense a minimal level of elementary and secondary education and then fund it as best it can amidst other competing priorities. 

Supporting an opportunity for a complete, proper, quality education is the legislature’s paramount priority; 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.”

Representative Albert Sommers represents House District 20

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Gen Z’ers and Millennials Believe Punctuation is Hostile

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By Jennifer Kocher, County 17

Anthony Monteleone learned the hard way what happens when you throw in a period at the end of a text.

The Campbell County High School senior had been having a good day, he said, and wanted to randomly share the thought with his buddies. Without thinking about it, he added a period at the end and hit send. 

Immediately, his pals wanted to know what was wrong.

“Everyone thought I was being sarcastic or something,” he said with a laugh. “I really just wanted to say that I was having a good day.”

To many people above the age of 30, the period is a seemingly innocuous punctuation symbol used to mark the end of the sentence. 

To Gen Z’ers and millennials, however, it’s considered a form of aggression when used in a text, or worse, a sign that a person is taking themselves far too seriously.

Text messages, Monteleone explained, are meant to be loose thoughts or casual conversations between friends. Adding a period, therefore, makes it “a serious conversation,” which, breaks with text etiquette and apparently puts some teens on edge because like all caps, or capital letters, it feels like they’re being yelled at.

“Most people reserve a period for when they want to make a serious point,” he said.

Some people are much more offended by text punctuation than others, explained CCHS junior Danielle Beightol, who said she doesn’t put a lot of thought into the underlying emotions that text punctuation may or may not convey.

“It depends on the person or group of people,” she further clarified. In her case, it’s not really a big deal, she said, because she doesn’t put a lot of credence into over-analyzing the purpose and tone of her texts. For her, it’s just a loose mode of conversation and a way to communicate otherwise mundane info between pals.

“Others read too deeply into it,” she said.

Monteleone said he thinks that teens overanalyze texts because they lack the verbal cues and human-to-human contact, so some people are overly cautious in the absence of context.

“You learn to compensate in a different format,” he said. “You scramble for the tiniest details to convey tone.”

Both teens clarified that this no-period etiquette is reserved for their peers, and both use punctuation freely when communicating with adults, teachers, or bosses, which they see as a form of professionalism that transcends whether or not a person is cool.

Likewise, this non-punctuation stance is reserved for text messages, both further clarified, and doesn’t apply to schoolwork or even posting on social media.

It also doesn’t correlate to reading books, Monteleone noted.

“It’s not like we read a book and feel like we’re being yelled at,” he said with a laugh. “We understand the difference.”

Ellipses, or the dot-dot-dot (…) as it’s informally known, is a much more casual, drawn-out cousin of the period used to indicate the intentional omission of a word or information to follow. For this reason, it’s much “softer” and denotes a “pause in thought” as opposed to an abrupt hard stop, Beightol and Monteleone both explained.

Likewise, exclamation marks, are dully acceptable despite their otherwise excitable and dramatic role in a sentence. But unlike the period, teens don’t put much emotional stock in the punctuation mark.

“We don’t take them seriously,” Beightol said. “They’re just kinda funny or sarcastic.”

Meanwhile, CCHS English teacher Tim Bessett was surprised to learn about the no-period rule, which until yesterday, he was blithely unaware.

“I had absolutely no idea,” Bessett said, noting he’s one of those uncool adults who texts in complete sentences with punctuation. His students nodded. They get it. When communicating with him, they always make a point to properly punctuate.

After talking to his students, Bessett learned that the length of a text message or whether it contains a period seems to have the biggest impact, at times, more so than even the body of the text. For example, he cited one student who told him that she was really put off by her mother who responded to her text question with “OK.” The capitals, on top of a period, put the teen into a headspin.

“She thought her mother was being aggressive or snooty about the request,” Bessett explained.

The looseness of grammar in texts and social media posts appears to not only be relegated to casual communication, however. As an English teacher, who also teaches theater, senior speech and speech and debate and has been at CCHS for 16 years, Bessett said the lack of attention to punctuation is becoming an ongoing battle that every year seems to get a little worse.

“I will have a number of students who can’t use punctuation,” he said. “There’s definitely a breakdown.”

Particularly, he sees students struggling with punctuation, capitalization, fragments, and run-on sentences, skills his students spend a lot of time rebuilding when they first enter his class.

Several studies seem to confirm Bessett’s belief that the way young people – and even adults – correspond on social media tends to work against grammatical skills and proper sentence structure as texting becomes almost like a second language.

The quick back and forth “culture of mobile communication” inevitably has compromised traditional, cultural writing, according to S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications and co-director of Pennsylvania State University’s Media Effects Research Laboratory, which conducted the 2012 “Techspeak” study of 13- to 17 year olds.

Sundar and his researchers found that prevalent texting has eroded the foundation of basic grammar, suggesting that the teens can’t “code switch” between standard grammar and the abbreviations used in texts. Moreover, researchers found that tweens between 10 to 14 who are text savvy tended to score worse on grammar tests.

Regardless, as an English teacher, Bessett spends a lot of time helping students rebuild the skills, so they’ll, in essence, be fluent in two languages that serve two entirely different purposes.

For their part, Monteleone and Beightol say that both skills are useful, and they find it easy to switch back and forth between the two forms of communication.

It’s just another way to convey information, they shrug. No period necessary.

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Wyoming School Board Association Opposes School Consolidation Bill

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming School Board Association has expressed its opposition to a recently proposed bill that would consolidate Wyoming’s school district from 48 to 24.

House Bill 77 is sponsored by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, and co-sponsored by a number of other legislators, including Rep. Chuck Gray and Sen. Lynn Hutchings.

“I think it’s fairly evident the Wyoming School Board Association opposes this bill,” WBSA executive director Brian Farmer told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “One of the things that’s fundamental to us is local control and local governance. Plus, many schools act as the center of their small communities.”

This bill proposes each of Wyoming’s 23 counties should have one school district, along with one district for the Wind River Reservation.

Farmer noted that the state’s last major effort at consolidating school districts occurred in the 1970s and could be described as “tense.”

“I’ve heard stories of fist fights when it came to school consolidation,” he said.

Fremont County has eight school districts and Uinta County, which has three, are considered prime examples of counties with too many school districts in Zwonitzer’s opinion.

On the other hand, Natrona County only has one district and Laramie County has two. The two are the state’s largest counties by population.

“My overall goal is not to impact teacher pay or put 35 kids in a classroom,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily this week. “This won’t be the be-all, end-all solution, but if we could save 10% to 15% of our budget with this, that’s huge.”

Farmer said that consolidation could happen in some counties on a case-by-case basis, but lawmakers and administrators would need to ask how consolidation would benefit the community and where consolidation would be the most beneficial.

Instead of consolidating school districts, Farmer suggested sharing resources as a cost-saving measure.

“For example, a couple districts want to offer the same language program. Then, you could get a teacher to go to different schools in the county and teach that program, instead of hiring a separate teacher for each school,” Farmer said. “The sharing of resources across district boundaries certainly would be worthwhile.”

The Wyoming Education Association did not respond to a request for comment regarding the bill.

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Cheyenne Lawmaker Proposes Reducing Wyoming’s School Districts

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Cheyenne legislator has proposed cutting Wyoming’s school districts in half to save the state money.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer recently introduced House Bill 77, which would cut the amount of Wyoming’s school districts in half, down from 48 to 24 (one per Wyoming county and one for the Wind River Reservation).

“My overall goal is not to impact teacher pay or put 35 kids in a classroom,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “This won’t be the be-all, end-all solution, but if we could save 10% to 15% of our budget with this, that’s huge.”

The bill is co-sponsored by five other representatives and two senators, including Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne. It was received for introduction last week and Zwonitzer expected it to be sent to committee sometime this week.

Zwonitzer said the idea behind the bill was to find a way to cut administration and transportation costs rather than reducing teacher salaries or the classroom experience.

“We might lose some administrators, but my thinking is that schools will be forced to find the same efficiencies that the state government has had to do over the last five years,” the representative said.

He pointed to Fremont County, which has eight school districts, and Uinta County, which has three, as prime examples of counties with too many school districts.

On the other hand, Natrona County only has one district and Laramie County has two. The two are the state’s largest counties by population.

“You shouldn’t have more school districts than you do legislators,” Zwonitzer said. “There’s no reason to have a school district with fewer than 1,000 kids. We’re losing 1% of the population every year, so it doesn’t justify having 48 school districts across the state.”

The Wyoming Education Association did not respond to a request for comment regarding the bill.

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Balow Slams Biden’s Energy Moratorium on Fox

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow on Monday harshly criticized President Joe Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands as a threat to Wyoming’s schools.

Speaking with host Fox News Dana Perino, Balow compared Biden’s actions to restrict oil and gas production to those taken by former President Barack Obama (whose administration Biden served as vice president) during his time in office.

“This is a different kind of lockdown that we’re talking about,” Balow said. “This is a lockdown of an industry that our students in Wyoming really depend on. Day seven of President Biden’s presidency, we would see a near shutdown of the industry that we rely on for public education.”

Oil and natural gas production provide about $740 million in funding for Wyoming’s public schools, Balow said.

Biden issued an executive order last week halting new oil and gas leasing on federal land to allow the Department of Interior to conduct a comprehensive review of the federal leasing program and existing fossil fuel leases.

Balow called the executive order “arbitrary” and said Biden was targeting a few states in the Mountain West that have both a wealth of federal land and resources.

“This is significant,” she said. “What we know in Wyoming is that this could be, by modest estimates, about $150 million a year in lost revenue within just a couple of years.”

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso retweeted the clip of Balow’s appearance on Monday, agreeing that the moratorium would have a significant impact on Wyoming’s schools.

“This morning, WY State Superintendent @jillian4supt discussed on @FoxNews how @POTUS’ energy lockdown is detrimental to WY schools. Revenues from WY oil & gas contribute about $740 million to WY public education. This will have a significant negative impact on kids in our state,” he said.

Other orders signed by Biden in his first days in office included one for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.

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UW, Colleges Launch Collaborative Effort To Improve Wyoming’s Economy

in Economy/Education/News/University of Wyoming
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges are launching a collaborative effort to better prepare Wyoming students for the state’s evolving economy and encourage entrepreneurship, officials announced Monday.

Gov. Mark Gordon, in a news conference with UW President Ed Seidel and presidents from the state’s community colleges, announced the launch of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a joint effort by all the schools to focus more on Wyoming’s economic needs.

“The economic challenges Wyoming is facing are going to require us to develop and deploy innovative solutions,” Gordon said. “It is critical to have this coordinated effort from our state’s institutions of higher education.”

Under the WIN program, community colleges and UW will work to align courses to prepare students for industries that will need skilled workers in the future, such as tourism, advanced manufacturing and digital technology, Gordon said.

He added by working together, the schools will also help students become entrepreneurs and help make Wyoming more attractive to new businesses by making sure they have access to a skilled workforce.

“Our goal is a unified effort that will help launch this economic development as well as strengthen our economy and help our workers succeed here in Wyoming,” Gordon said.

The initiative will also look at ways to increase the availability of higher education to students who might not be otherwise able to access it, perhaps through digital means, he said.

The effort will require the UW and community colleges to develop closer relationships with private industry, Seidel said, both to determine what skills employers need and to seek financial support for the effort.

Seidel and the presidents of the community college have already formed a working group which will meet regularly to determine how to move forward with items such as making educational programs align and making sure community college students have access to the university.

Darren Divine, president of Casper College, pointed out the university and community colleges are already working along those lines, such as with the development of a bachelor’s degree in applied science and the bachelor’s of science in nursing.

In addition, a program announced Monday will allow community college students to know exactly how their college credits will apply should they attend the UW, Divine said.

“The community colleges and the university are very cohesive and aligned more now than ever before,” he said. “This new effort will enhance Wyoming’s ability to meet the challenges created by our current economic environment.”

There will be a cost connected to the effort, Gordon said, but he said his direction to the presidents was to look at what could be done and then perhaps look to sources other than the state for at least part of the funding.

“Then comes the part of how do we raise the funds,” he said. “We’ve got to reach out to the private sector. That’s something that Wyoming is going to have to do more of. We can’t depend entirely on the (legislative” block grant, on what the Legislature does.

“What is important here is a new direction in a way to collaborate among our institutions, to work from the ground up,” he said. “As money comes its direction, as it proves its worth, then more investment will result in more success.”

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Northwest College Considering Changing Name to Yellowstone College

in Education/News
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By Kevin Killough, Powell Tribune

As Northwest College reviewed proposed budget cuts in the coming fiscal year, Trustee John Housel argued the college should include funding that would allow for renaming NWC as Yellowstone College. 

“I don’t think we should stall. I don’t think we should wait for something else to happen,” Housel said. “I don’t think we should wait for another review of some nature to find out how we’re going to do this.” 

He pointed to the public input sessions the college has held over the past year and where a predominant message from the community was the name change was desirable.

And he noted that, at her final NWC board meeting in November, outgoing President Stefani Hicswa encouraged the trustees to move forward with a new name.

At Housel’s request, an ad-hoc committee has been formed to begin examining how to execute the plan.

The committee, he said, could begin researching answers to a number of questions that remain about the rebranding plan. This would include any statutory issues limiting the college’s authority to do so.

Housel also wants the committee to discuss the plan with the Northwest College Foundation to be sure it was on board with the new name. 

“They may not be,” he warned. 

Housel also wants to solicit input from the Wyoming Community College Commission to make sure the college doesn’t run afoul of any criteria the WCCC has governing college name changes and see if the commission has any other objections to the plan. 

“If we knew that early on, that would be helpful,” Housel said. 

The new committee will also do some preliminary analysis on costs of changing signage, designing new logos, and redesigning the website. 

Housel also proposed the committee set a timeline by which the name change could be achieved. 

Dusty Spomer, president of the board of trustees, said a lot of the work would fall to the committee, as the college staff’s time resources were tapped out.

NWC Interim President Lisa Watson said the rebranding is part of the planned institutional transformation. Specifically, it’s part of phase 2, as laid out by the college’s consultants, CampusWorks, which is helping with the overall transformation. 

Watson pointed out that the college, which was previously Northwest Community College, has changed its name before, indicating it’s possible. 

“If we’re ever going to start the work, we need to start the work,” she agreed. 

Housel volunteered to serve on the committee. At the same meeting, Trustee Mark Wurzel was appointed to take over as president of the board, leaving Spomer time to serve alongside Housel on the committee.

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