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Education

Report: Wyoming’s Teachers Least Underpaid In Nation

in News/Education
10747

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

While teachers across the country might be underpaid when compared to other professions, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that Wyoming’s teachers are the least underpaid.

A statistic from the EPI’s September 2020 report that shows public school teachers make about 20% less than college graduates who are not teachers has been making the rounds on social media lately.

However, the report also showed that Wyoming’s teachers are paid better than most, with their salaries falling below those of non-teachers by about 2%, a fact that was noted by many social media users.

The Wyoming Department of Education was grateful that people took notice of the better pay for teachers in the state.

“It is wonderful to see Wyoming recognized for placing an emphasis on funding teachers,” Wyoming Department of Education spokeswoman Linda Finnerty told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “As we continue to explore the future of education funding in Wyoming, Superintendent Balow will continue to advocate for prioritizing our dollars on teachers and their classrooms.”

Some states, such as Arizona and Virginia, pay their teachers more than 30% less than what other college graduates are earning.

Rhode Island and New Jersey followed behind in Wyoming in paying their teachers the best.

Funding for the state’s teachers and schools became an issue this year, however, with news that Wyoming’s K-12 Education School Foundation Program is facing a $250 million annual structural deficit and the School Capital Construction Account (SCCA) faces a $50 million annual shortfall.

Most of the money for Wyoming’s schools comes from property taxes and a disproportionate amount of those taxes have been paid in the past by the state’s mineral industry. Legislators this year tried unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between income and expenses in the state’s schools but were unable to do so, leaving the shortfall to be covered by a $331 million transfer from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.”

State Reps. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, in an opinion piece published by Cowboy State Daily, noted the state must come up with solution to the shortfalls in education funding.

“Wyoming should continue to look for efficiencies in funding K-12 education,” the representatives said. “It is imperative that Wyoming continue to examine its K-12 educational program to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.”

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Opinion: The Legislature, Education, And Closing the Coal Gap

in News/Education
10673

By Rep. Albert Sommers, Rep. Jerry Paxton, Rep. Steve Harshman, Rep. Landon Brown, guest column

Several news articles have appeared recently about the Wyoming Legislature’s failure this past session to solve the K12 education funding shortfall. Due to the lack of legislative action, Governor Gordon is developing a committee to review K12 education, and to develop a “customer based” approach.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s April 30 op-ed in the Casper Star-Tribune suggests a committee should develop a five-year plan for education funding. Superintendent Balow believes that the K12 “basket of goods” should be updated, and that Wyoming needs “a newer version of our K12 system that teaches for a 21st Century economy and is fiscally sustainable.”

Is our educational system not competitive with other states? Is it not adequately educating Wyoming’s children Based upon a compilation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, the nation’s report card, in 2019 Wyoming ranked 4th, behind only Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.

In 2017, the Legislature hired Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) to review and compare Wyoming’s educational program (“basket of goods”) and its standards with those of other states. According to APA, “Wyoming’s Education Program is well aligned in most content areas with regional and high performing comparison states.”

Some believe that if we reduce our “basket of goods” we can reduce expenditures on education, without repercussions from the courts.

Our “basket of goods” consists of the following content areas: Reading/language arts; Social studies; Mathematics, Science; Fine arts and performing arts; Physical education; Health and safety; Humanities; Career/Vocational education, Foreign cultures and languages, Government and civics (including state and federal constitutions); and Computer science.

Which of these educational opportunities should we eliminate for Wyoming’s children, and would it save the state any money?

Wyoming’s K-12 Education School Foundation Program (SFP) is facing a $250 million annual structural deficit, and the School Capital Construction Account (SCCA) faces a $50 million annual shortfall.

Wyoming is like other states; we fund our schools with property taxes. The difference in Wyoming is that minerals pay half of our property taxes. Specifically, coal production has declined in the last ten years from 450 million tons per year to just over 200 million tons, which is a loss of nearly $400 million in state revenues.

To close the “coal gap,” the State must create new revenues (taxes), redirect current funding streams, or reduce spending. The common-sense approach would be a combination of these.

The Wyoming Constitution requires the Legislature to fund an equitable education “adequate to the proper instruction of all youth in the state.”

Due to failed negotiations on the last day of the session, Wyoming’s schools will require a $331 million transfer from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), the state’s “rainy day” fund, to maintain operations.

To close the K12 structural shortfall, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed House Bill 173 by a 41-19 vote. HB173 leveraged spending reductions, revenue flows that are headed to savings, federal stimulus funding and a half-percent sales tax for education, triggered only if state reserves were to fall below a critical level. House Bill 173 would have solved about 85% of the K12 SFP funding gap.

Wyoming should continue to look for efficiencies in funding K12 education. It is imperative that Wyoming continue to examine its K12 educational program to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.

However, Wyoming has lost 250 million tons of coal production per year and the taxes generated from it. Wyoming needs a comprehensive solution to education funding that includes reduced spending, redirecting existing revenue flows, and new revenues.

Sincerely,

Albert Sommers
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #20

Jerry Paxton
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #47

Steve Harshman
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #37

Landon Brown
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #9

Wyoming GOP Praises Balow For Saying No To Critical Race Theory

in News/Education
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Republican Party is praising Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s for her position against teaching critical race theory in schools.

The organization thanked Balow late Wednesday for her pushback against a federal proposal to teach certain controversial topics in history and civics classes, applauding her for listening to the people of Wyoming and “standing in the gap for Republican values.”

“In this decision, Balow represents the will of the majority of Wyomingites and Americans. We love our country and our heritage,” the party said in a statement. “Programs like the 1619 Project and CRT seek to destroy America’s moral fiber and promote falsehoods about the founding of our nation.”

The U.S. Department of Education recently proposed priorities for American history and civics education grant programs which include encouraging districts to use curriculum related to the New York Times 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Balow called this an “alarming move” on Tuesday and said it should be rebuked across party lines.

“The draft rule is an attempt to normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history. History and civics should not be secondary to political whim,” she said. “Instead, history and civics instruction should engage students in objective, non-partisan analyses of historical and current events.

The Republican Party encouraged superintendents in other states to follow in Balow’s example.

While Balow agreed that America needed to update and renew its expectations for teaching and learning about history and civics, she countered that every school board, state legislature and state superintendent should work to build a local consensus about what should be taught and what materials should be used in classrooms.

“Every family should be engaged in activities that ensure the rising generation is properly prepared to be informed citizens,” Baow said. “Every student deserves a rich and engaging education about America’s triumphs, treacheries, losses, and victories. Our touchstone is our shared principle that all Americans have infinite value and individual freedom and responsibility. We must strive to find common goals and values as a nation, not tear each other and our country apart.”

Last week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed a bill that outlawed state teachers from instructing students on critical race theory and other “social justice” issues.

The proposed federal rule on these new educational priorities is open for public comment until May 19.

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Balow Says No To Teaching Critical Race Theory in Wyoming Classrooms

in News/Education
10546

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is pushing back against proposed federal priorities for schools to teach the theory that racism is an ingrained part of American life.

The U.S. Department of Education recently proposed priorities for American history and civics education grant programs which include encouraging districts to use curriculum related to the New York Times 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

Critical race theory is described as some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Balow called this an “alarming move” on Tuesday and said it should be rebuked across party lines.

“The draft rule is an attempt to normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history. History and civics should not be secondary to political whim,” she said. “Instead, history and civics instruction should engage students in objective, non-partisan analyses of historical and current events.

“For good reason, public schools do not promote particular political ideologies or religions over others,” she continued. “This federal rule attempts to break from that practice and use taxpayer dollars to do just that.”

While Balow agreed that America needed to update and renew its expectations for teaching and learning about history and civics, she countered that every school board, state legislature and state superintendent should work to build a local consensus about what should be taught and what materials should be used in classrooms.

“Every family should be engaged in activities that ensure the rising generation is properly prepared to be informed citizens,” Baow said. “Every student deserves a rich and engaging education about America’s triumphs, treacheries, losses, and victories. Our touchstone is our shared principle that all Americans have infinite value and individual freedom and responsibility. We must strive to find common goals and values as a nation, not tear each other and our country apart.”

Last week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed a bill that outlawed state teachers to instruct on critical race theory and other “social justice” issues.

The proposed federal rule on these new educational priorities is open for public comment until May 19.

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Bill Proposing New Sales Tax For Schools Moves to Wyoming Senate

in News/Taxes/Education
9596

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

One down, one to go.

A pair of bills proposing increases in the statewide sales tax being debated in the Wyoming House of Representatives saw divided fortunes Tuesday.

Each proposed a statewide sales tax, one to benefit schools and the other to benefit local governments.

But the bill that backers said would have provided a stable funding source for cities and counties through a new sales tax died on a vote of 10-50, while the bill that would help fund schools around Wyoming lives on.

House Bill 173, which lays out a formula for funding the state’s schools, would allow a one-half cent sales tax to be imposed statewide that would help reduce the $300 million deficit currently facing Wyoming schools – but only if the state’s reserve account falls below $650 million.

Brian Farmer, executive director for the Wyoming School Boards Association, said the tax included in the education bill seeks to offset the downturn in the mineral industry revenues that have historically funded education in the state.

“We know that for the last 12 to 15 years we’ve been incredibly heavily reliant on the mineral industry,” he pointed out. “But as the landscape changes, as the mineral economy is changing, the state is probably in need of reviewing its revenue sources. Our traditional revenue sources are not what they used to be; our expenditures maintain, and they do grow because of inflation.”

But the bill doesn’t just propose an increase in taxes. 

“It involves cuts,” he said. “Looking at where might we be able to make reductions that would have the least impact to classrooms and school districts.”

But he said, make no mistake about it, cuts mean job losses.

“When 85% of (a school’s) budget is tied up in people, there really just is nowhere to keep that entirely away from impacting people,” Farmer said. “If you have cuts that are in the neighborhood of 10%, you will be seeing job losses within school districts.”

Farmer pointed out that in every community, school districts are among the top three employers – and if teachers lose their jobs, they are likely to move out of those communities rather than find a job in another field. That means fewer dollars circulating in Wyoming communities.

He added that revenue transfers are also addressed in the bill – diverting some income for the state’s savings accounts to current education needs.

Farmer explained that if imposed, the sales tax could generate around $80 million each biennium. 

“So, that new revenue, combined with some cuts, combined with some revenue transfers, really goes a long way to plugging that $300 million hole,” he said.

He added he is hopeful that Wyoming’s historic high regard for education will sway legislators to support additional funding for schools.

“From the beginning of our territorial days, Gov. Campbell, the very first Governor of Wyoming, called education ‘the cornerstone of the new state,’” he said. “So from the very beginning, we’ve gone forward and built an education system that’s an envy of the nation.”

“And if we lose that, we threaten the quality of education, we threaten the very economy of Wyoming,” he added.

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Wyo Education: Value Of Four-Day Week Depends On School, Balow Says

in News/Education
9557

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – those are the times that families expect their kids to be in school. The times that teachers expect to be in front of their classrooms.

But the “traditional” view of school days and times is changing – even in Wyoming. 

Right now, according to the Wyoming Department of Education, 26 school districts in the state have moved to a four-day school week to meet the changing needs of students and staff.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said the benefits of a four-day week vary from school district to school district.

“For students, it gives them sometimes longer class periods during the four-day week where they can work more with teachers and interact with their peers,” she said, adding that Fridays are often utilized for intervention or enrichment activities for students. 

“We see this a lot in our smaller school districts,” she said, pointing to her own experience as a teacher in the tiny town of Hulett in northeast Wyoming.

“I can tell you that there are lots of Fridays that because of sports, there may be 50% to 60% of the school gone for the better part of the day – so a four day school week also allows for a school district to make some some decisions about making sure kids are in school for those four days, and then activities are on Friday,” she said.

Balow noted the shift can sometimes be based on financial issues.

“Financial gains or losses really need to be analyzed and realized at the local level,” she said. “In some cases, it might be a financial gain to have a four-day week. And in some cases, it might cost a little bit more, just depending on how it how it is worked.”

But she added that no matter the school’s decision, the one thing that must remain unchanged is the number of hours the students are in the classroom.

“Whether they do it within four days or five days, the student contact hours are the very same,” she said. “And they have to assure the state Legislature and my department and the State Board of Education that they are meeting those those contact hours for students.”

Jimmy Phelps is the superintendent for Washakie County School District No. 2 in Ten Sleep. Currently, the school operates on a schedule of four full days of classes with an alternating early release schedule on Fridays.

This spring, the school board was contemplating making a move to a four-day school week. But ultimately, he said, there wasn’t enough support for the measure to pass.

“I set up a task force that had 16 members,” he explained. “It included staff members, parents, stakeholders, and we looked at various aspects of it. We talked to members of other districts, and then we put out a survey to our stakeholders, and we had a very good response number from those.”

Responses to the survey in support of the measure included the idea that a four-day week promotes better mental and emotional health for students; opposition to the proposal stemmed in part from the fact the change would force parents to rework their schedules. In addition, some respondents saw no problem with the current schedule. 

Additionally, respondents noted that the school has more pressing issues to consider right now than a change to the weekly schedule.

In the end, Phelps said, there wasn’t enough support for the board to approve the change.

“There were more that had a definite yes, than definitely no, but there still wasn’t more than 50%,” he said. “So this task force felt like there wasn’t enough community support to recommend to the board a four-day week, for next year.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Niobrara County. George Mirich, the superintendent for the school district there, said the district moved to a four-day school week in 2019 for a number of reasons.

“One, we needed more time for professional development,” he explained. “And we needed to curtail our time out of classroom activities – between all of our activities, the low number of students and the high number of teachers involved in these activities as far as sponsors and coaches and such, we were missing school multiple times in the same week.”

Mirich said about 300 students attend school in the district, and on any given day, 30 students could be missing class to take part in any number of activities.

“And Fridays, a lot of times, we’d be missing half our kids and most of our teachers,” he adds.

So it’s worked out well for the schools in Lusk, according to Mirich.

But for Ten Sleep, the issue is now moot.

At a meeting that was held March 8, Phelps said the school board for Washakie County School District No. 2 closed down the discussion about moving to a four day week.

“It doesn’t mean it may not ever come up again, but there was nothing in the motion that the board approved about considering this in the future,” he said.

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Sublette County School District No Longer Requiring Masks

in News/Coronavirus/Education
9544

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Pinedale schools are no longer requiring students, staff or board members to wear masks on any of their campuses.

Sublette County School District No. 1 posted on its social media site Sunday that the new rule would take effect on Monday. The district’s schools consist of the elementary, middle and high school in Pinedale.

“Simply stated, no student, staff member or visitor to the district will be required to wear a mask,” the district said.

Gov. Mark Gordon ended the statewide mask mandate on March 16, but his order continues to require the use of masks in public schools.

The decision by Sublette County school trustees to defy Gordon’s order was made during the district’s board of trustees meeting on March 11, when the board passed a motion to eliminate school SMART Start Plans and follow the minimum guidelines set by state public health officers.

However, the motion made an exception for health orders on masks in schools and lifted the requirements.

“The Board would also like to make it explicitly clear that this action does not prohibit wearing a mask by anyone who wishes to do so, and the Board expects all students, staff, parents and community members to respect everyone who chooses to do so,” the district said on social media.

Gordon said his decision to lift the public health orders in place for months reflected the state’s continually improving health metrics and is consistent with his approach of balancing public health with protecting livelihoods.

“I thank the people of Wyoming for their commitment to keeping one another safe throughout this pandemic,” Gordon said. “It is through their efforts that we have kept our schools and businesses operating and our economy moving forward. I ask all Wyoming citizens to continue to take personal responsibility for their actions and stay diligent as we look ahead to the warmer months and to the safe resumption of our traditional spring and summer activities.” 

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Balow: No One Solution To School Funding Problems

in News/Education
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

There’s no one simple solution. 

That’s the message from Wyoming’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, on the issue of budget cuts and finding ways to address a roughly $300 million dollar deficit in education funding.

“It’s a whole lot of surgery on our school funding model,” she said, “and finding the very best ways to keep cuts away from the classrooms, and cuts away from the great opportunities that we provide to our students.”

Balow, who grew up in Gillette, knows very well the realities of a boom-and-bust economy based on mineral royalties and taxes. And she noted the situation the state is facing right now is nothing new.

“If you retrace the steps that led to the devastating impacts that caused the downturn in our coal industry, you’ll experience deja-vu,” she said. “Because the very same thing is happening.” 

To close the $300 million dollar gap, the State can either create new revenues in the form of taxes, redirect current funding streams, or make drastic cuts to local budgets that have already experienced reductions — or, most likely, a combination of all three. 

“The truth is that not one of these is going to fix the deficit that we have,” Balow explained. “And not one of these is going to fix the deficit that we will realize if oil and gas continues in the direction that coal did 10 or so years ago.”

Balow added that the deficit is sometimes hard to acknowledge, because Wyoming in the past has been able to dip into the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, to eliminate the gap — but that won’t be around forever.

“We continue to take as much as we need from the LSRA, to make up for the school funding difference, and so we don’t feel it,” she said. “But that’s not sustainable, because as soon as that goes below $500 million, right now, in current statute, that faucet is off.

“Because it feels like we’re flush with money, it feels like the funding is the same,” she continued. “But in reality, we’re taking from the rainy day account to make up that deficit.”

The Wyoming Legislature is considering several measures that could generate additional revenue for education, including House Bill 61 that would add a percentage to the statewide sales tax. Those bills will be making their way through the Legislature this week.

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Bill Would List Political Affiliation For School Board Candidates

in News/Legislature/Education/politics
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would allow school board candidates to list their political affiliation on ballots won approval from a Senate committee Friday, despite objection from the Wyoming School Boards Association.

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, the sponsor of Senate File 138, told members of the Senate Education Committee that the party affiliation listings will help voters decide who to cast their ballots for in school board races.

“Every year during election season, I do my due diligence and try to make sure I understand who the candidates are,” said Ellis, a member of the committee. “Inevitably, before I was elected and spent so much time working on education issues, I really had no idea who was on the school board.”

Ellis noted by allowing school board candidates to add their political party affiliation, voters would also be alerted to some of their ideals.

“I think it would indicate to voters what your mindset is and I know there are people who are proud of their party affiliation, Republican or Democrat,” Ellis said.

However, she added the party affiliation listing would be optional for school board candidates.

However, Wyoming School Board Association Executive Director Brian Farmer said since the board positions are non-partisan, his association believes party affiliations should not be included on ballots.

“We believe school boards are nonpartisan and that they should operate with the best interest of children in mind without regard to political party,” Farmer said.

Additionally, non-partisan elections run on a different cycle than partisan ones, the latter of which are paid for by the state. School board elections are paid for by school districts.

Lobbyist Marguerite Herman added school board candidates generally make no secret of their party affiliation in their campaign materials and said she feels the affiliation shouldn’t be added to the ballot for these candidates since they do not hold the same type of power as a city councilperson or county commissioner.

“I’ve always had a bit of a Pollyanna attitude, but it’s that you should leave your political party affiliation at the door when you walk into a school boardroom,” Herman said. “You have to think of the district as a whole.”

The committee passed the bill on a vote of 4-1, sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.

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Legislators Say New Taxes, Spending Cuts, Or Both Needed to Fund $300 Million Education Deficit

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Funding for schools and school construction are facing a $300 million annual deficit due to declining coal and natural gas production and prices and diminished school district property tax collections, two House leaders said Thursday.

Reps. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, and Steve Harshman, R-Casper, on Thursday issued a statement saying that new taxes, spending cuts or a combination of both will be needed to put education funding back on track.

Wyoming funds its schools with property taxes, but minerals pay 50% of those taxes, leaving the state’s homeowners with the fifth-lowest property taxes in the United States, said the statement by Harshman, chairman of the House Revenue Committee, and Paxton, chairman of the House Education Committee.

“Local school property taxes from minerals have declined dramatically,” the two said. “Our state’s mineral severance tax and Federal Mineral Royalties have dropped to the lowest levels in decades, and Wyoming has lost over 200 million tons of coal production per year in the last few years. That is a 50% drop.”

They added that this drop made it difficult for the Legislature to fulfill its duty to fund an “equitable” public education system for the state. Without further legislative action, Wyoming’s schools will use $331 million of the state’s “rainy day” fund over the next few years.

“To close the gap, the State must either create new revenues (taxes), redirect current funding streams, reduce spending (cuts) or a combination of these. Moderation in all these areas can produce a long-term permanent solution,” the representatives said.

The Wyoming House of Representatives has proposed a contingent increase in sales taxes that would only be implemented as a last resort if oil prices don’t rebound, spending isn’t reduced and revenue streams aren’t shifted to help the state’s savings account reach its minimum balances.

“Every problem has a solution. We think it is important to solve problems and that now is the time to do so, rather than putting off the structural challenges to our education system any longer,” the representatives said.

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