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education funding

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

in News/Education
9244

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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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The Salary Of Every Educator In Wyoming Is Now Available Online

in News/Education
3275

The salaries of every educator in Wyoming are now available online.

Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com, announced the news on Friday.

Andrzejewski said the process to get the salaries posted was a three-year effort which included the efforts of Wyoming State Senator Tom James who filed a public records request last year.

The takeaway?

There are more than 16,000 full-time employees in Wyoming and the costs – including benefits – are estimated to total more than $1 billion.

Who is getting paid what in your district?  The Open the Books website has a search tool that will allow users five free trials before requiring users to register.

Some highlights from the report:

“Highest paying districts: The districts paying the most six-figure compensation packages include Laramie #1 (60), Natrona #1 (44), Campbell #1 based in Gillette (37), Teton #1 (21), and Sweetwater #2 based in Green River (13). In Fremont #25, although their superintendent earns a generous salary, only seven other employees made six-figures.”

“Top paid: Terry Snyder, Superintendent of Fremont #25 (Riverton), ranked as the highest paid educator after his disclosed compensation increased last year from $157,218 to $216,304. Rounding out the top five most highly paid: Steven Hopkins, Superintendent of Natrona #1 in Casper ($208,291); Craig Dougherty, Superintendent of Sheridan #2 ($207,600); Gillian Chapman, Superintendent of Teton #1 in Jackson ($203,898); and Boyd Brown, Superintendent of Laramie #1 in Cheyenne ($196,000).”

Here’s the full story

Education is already state’s top expense — why spend more?

in Column/Education
2534

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY

I never served on the Senate Education Committee, but participated in many discussions on school funding formulas, education expenses, school construction, curriculum, teacher salaries and administrative costs. 

I did have the opportunity to serve six years on the Appropriations Committee and on the latest Recalibration Committee as well as the School Facilities Select Committee and so, like most legislators voting on these matters, I couldn’t help but learn about the issues facing education.

Recently the Joint Education Committee met and narrowly passed a proposal for a $19 million increase to the education funding model. This bill will go to the full Legislature in February for a vote. 

I question the need for yet another increase to education funding, considering the fact spending on our public schools is already the largest of all the state’s budget expenditures. In addition, an annual automatic adjustment to education to account for inflation already adds $15 million a year to the cost. So Wyoming ranks No. 1 in our region for education spending and No. 5 in the country.

It leaves me shaking my head that the Education Committee is once again recommending even more spending increases. It begs the questions: Where will the money come from? Which budget will we rob from or what tax increase is coming? 

The explanation for the proposed increase from committee leaders was that Wyoming’s Supreme Court required education to be the Legislature’s top funding priority. My answer to that is that K-12 education is already the largest segment of our ever-growing state budget. 

Where we spent $1,234 per student in 1979, we are now spending $16,381 in 2019. The Legislature has elected to spend more than the funding model suggests every year since 2001. And yet we need to spend even more? Since 1979 our K-12 education budget has grown nearly 400 percent! 

Also consider that most school district superintendents in Wyoming — we have 48 — make more than our Governor

Folks, no one seems to driving this runaway train and sadly, I don’t see any stop to it. All of this leaves me with the question: How much do we need to spend or how much is enough for our schools to be happy enough to prevent them from suing the Legislature a fourth time. 

Personally, I say bring it. 

What evidence do our schools have that they are not our top priority? Most districts have new buildings, new buses, the highest starting salaries in the region, low class sizes, top-of-the-line benefits packages and the best students in the nation to work with. I for one grow tired of the threat of a law suit. Times have changed over the last 40 years and frankly, they do not have a leg to stand on. 

Finally, I would add this: If our Supreme Court rules again that our school districts need more money, then I would challenge our justices to balance our state budget. Are roads important? Water, sewer and other infrastructure that make our communities nice to live in, are they important? How about health care? Emergency services, law enforcement? 

I could go on and on with other budgets that will continue to be robbed in the name of education. Look at the numbers. Look at what we spend. Look at what we have spent with the funding increases over the last 40 years and then tell me with a straight face that more is needed to maintain the quality of our education. And please don’t tell me that I don’t believe in education as much as you do. Or that I just don’t understand how education works. I see what goes in and what comes out, and I’m left thinking that we can do much better.

Ray Peterson is back, hoping lawmakers will heed his calls for ed funding cuts

in News/Education
Education funding
2441

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

A former state senator who was ousted from the Legislature after sponsoring a bill that threatened to cut education funding is doubling down, saying more money needs to be cut.

Ray Peterson of Cowley said he was alarmed when he learned the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee recommended a $19 million education “external cost adjustment” — a boost to allow school funding to keep up with inflation. Weeks later, Gov. Mark Gordon also recommended an education adjustment of $19 million in 2020, and $19 million for the following year. 

“My concern is it’s not sustainable with the downturn in coal,” Peterson, a Republican who lost re-election in 2018, said in an interview. “That’s where a lot of our education funding comes from: Coal, oil and gas.”

So now he’s speaking out. No longer in the Legislature, he said he wants to start a discussion, hoping lawmakers will be empowered by his talking points. 

“I hope my defeat is not used as a poster child.” he said. “These decisions are hard.”

Nevertheless, the Wyoming Education Association says Peterson’s views are outside the norm and may not pass constitutional muster. The WEA points to a 2017 Public Opinion Strategies poll it commissioned that found 78 percent of registered voters agreed with the statement: “Even with the tough budget situation, funding for K-12 grade schools in the state should NOT be cut.”

And while Peterson questioned education salaries and spending compared to Wyoming’s neighbors, WEA President Kathy Vetter noted in Education Week’s report card, Quality Counts 2019, that the state ranked sixth nationally in education – higher than all five of its neighbors. 

2018 session bill

Education became a central topic in Peterson’s 2018 re-election primary after he sponsored a bill  designed to prevent districts from squirreling away large cash reserves for construction, he said. After several amendments, the cut to Wyoming schools would have been around $40 million, Peterson said, but it was shelved as other school funding measures were working through the legislative process. 

Components of Peterson’s bill were folded into another piece of legislation that cut education by around $29 million — and that bill passed. 

Less than six months later, Peterson – who had served since 2004 and chaired the Senate Revenue Committee — lost re-election to R.J. Kost, a Republican who retired from a long education career. 

This round

This time around, Peterson is offering a graph that he said charts 40 years of education funding in Wyoming — and an overall spending increase of 400 percent.  

If inflation was kept closer to the Consumer Price Index, he said the increase should only be around 120 percent.

Peterson acknowledged some of that increase occurred when legislators decades ago decided to direct more cash toward schools. Money also was distributed from the state to equalize funding among school districts after a series of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions that funding must be uniform. 

He also said some of the education funding increases were a deliberate decision by the Legislature to offer attractive salaries to lure and keep teachers in the state.  

But now Peterson thinks enough is enough. He thinks cuts could be constitutional if they were applied in a manner in which no school district disproportionately suffered. 

“My concern is it’s a runaway freight train and nobody’s tapping the brakes,” he said. 

The constant increases in school funding come at the expense of other state programs, he said, since the state revenue pie is shrinking. 

Possible constitutional issues

However, Vetter, the WEA president, said in an email that in one of the Supreme Court’s education funding decisions, it ruled the Legislature must fund education “adequately and equitably” before anything else. 

The proposal for a $38 million spending increase in the first year of the coming biennium just barely meets the minimum recommendation for education funding set by the Joint Education Committee, Vetter said. 

“The Legislature has established a funding model that meets the constitutional guarantee,” she said. “Gov. Gordon’s budget proposal honors Wyoming students’ constitutionally protected, fundamental right to an equitable, high-quality education.”

Vetter doesn’t deny these are challenging times for the state’s economy, and that other parts of the state budget are suffering. But the Legislature has constitutional obligations.

“Sacrificing on education means sacrificing Wyoming’s future,” she said. 

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