Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee voted Monday to recommend adding an external cost adjustment worth more than $72 million to the state’s next K-12 education budget.

The recommendation was made to the Joint Appropriations Committee, which asked legislators to consider the adjustment in upcoming negotiations concerning the statewide 2023-24 biennium budget.

If approved in full by the Wyoming Legislature during the 2022 budget session, schools would receive an extra $36.3 million a year to accommodate inflation and match market-value costs. Those funds would go toward district expenses for professional and non-professional staff, education materials and energy.

“I think it’s reasonable that we compensate our staff for those inflationary pressures that they’re feeling, and that we’re all feeling,” said state Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody.

Although the recommendation was approved, there was debate among committee members as to whether school districts should be able to accommodate inflation and external costs already. Some representatives even questioned the way local districts distribute state funds in relation to teacher and staff salaries.

Two separate motions were required in order for members of the committee to address their concerns. One was to recommend an external cost adjustment for only education materials and energy, which a little over half of the representatives supported. The other specifically focused on professional and non-professional staff.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, and co-chairman of the Education Committee, voted against both motions, alongside four Republican representatives.

“I think there was enough in the expenditures as they already are to cover this, and then some, without doing any harm to the existing districts,” Scott said.

But according to advocates and school district officials from across the state, the current budget is not covering what it takes to have a fully functioning, high-quality education system.

Wyoming Education Association Government Relations Director Tate Mullen testified on the behalf of teachers and school employees in the state. He said the external cost adjustment would not only mitigate such cost pressures as supplies, equipment and utilities, it also would give schools a competitive hiring edge.

Wyoming continues to struggle to attract and retain teachers, and Mullen said salaries play a key role. Part of the $72 million would go toward matching market pay for teachers and administrators, which would encourage applicants from surrounding states to apply and Wyoming natives to stay.

Mullen was not alone in providing on-the-ground context for representatives. Wyoming School Boards Association Director Brian Farmer and superintendents from Johnson County and Converse County both testified that the education system in Wyoming isn’t functioning adequately with current funding.

Many said the increase just in the cost of transportation and utilities over the past year would be reason enough to approve the external cost adjustment. The data that impacts the current funding model doesn’t account for how prices have changed due to supply chain issues and the pandemic, but district officials said it’s substantial.

“We haven’t found a new normal yet after coming out of COVID,” said Johnson County Superintendent Charles Auzqui.

Conversations will continue over the next few weeks as to how to address these and other cost concerns in the upcoming budget, but Mullen said the Education Committee made a statement Monday by listening to the advocates. He saw it as a recognition of the challenges faced by the state’s education system.

The $72 million is not guaranteed for the upcoming budget, but the Joint Appropriations Committee will take the recommendation under advisement at its next meeting on Oct. 25.

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