CHEYENNE – Wyoming lawmakers still have no information about the possible costs of altering the state’s school finance system.
The Legislature’s budget session begins in just five weeks, and legislators expect to make some significant decisions regarding education funding across the state.
The 2018 legislative session begins Feb. 12 at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne.
Following the 2017 session, legislators hired APA Consulting to complete an analysis of the state’s current education funding model and make recommendations about how the state should be funding it. APA estimates the work will cost $384,500, and the contract calls for it not to exceed nearly $460,000.
The Legislature ordered the school finance recalibration study despite a 2015 study performed by another consultant, Picus Odden & Associates, because of expected funding deficits that could surpass $1 billion within five years.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said, “There was the question asked: ‘Are we overfunding education in Wyoming?’”
He explained that Picus Odden & Associates completed the recalibration studies at every interval since 2000, so lawmakers thought it might be prudent to obtain a second opinion.
Sommers is a co-chairman of the Legislature’s Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. APA submitted a draft report of recalibration recommendations on Dec. 15 to that committee.
The report mostly is a written account of the same recommendations APA representatives made to the committee at its meeting in late November.
The draft report states that APA expects to release a final report this Friday, and that it will contain a cost analysis.
The consultants then will present their final recommendations to the select committee during its meeting Jan. 29-30. Legislators can ask for any clarifications at that time.
That will leave lawmakers with just two weeks to digest the recommendations before the budget session starts and they begin making decisions about how to fund K-12 education while also addressing a large anticipated deficit.
Gov. Matt Mead, in his budget, recommends borrowing $281 million from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, commonly known as the rainy-day fund, to cover the expected shortfalls.
Sommers said the APA consultants have not submitted a cost analysis of their recommendations because they’re working with staff members in the Legislative Service Office to create a funding model around their recommendations.
“In the end, it certainly will generate a dollar figure for each district and a total dollar figure,” Sommers said. “I have no idea whether their model will cost more than our current model or less than. I really don’t know.”
Sommers said the APA consultants determined Wyoming’s education funding model was consistent with adequacy studies across the nations, except that the state overfunds special education, and gifted and talented programs, and underfunds students who are at risk.
Picus Odden & Associates in 2015 also recommended increasing the services for at-risk students.
Regardless, Sommers said that based upon the general statements and the small amount of information provided by the consultants, he isn’t sure that the final recommendations will differ much from the current funding model.
APA also recommends increasing class sizes slightly from what the Legislature currently funds – but the consultants do not recommend increasing class sizes for the primary grades.
The legislative funding model pays for one teacher for every 16 students in K-3 and one teacher for every 21 students in grades 6-12. APA recommends one teacher for every 16 students in K-3 and one teacher for every 23 students in grades 4-12.
APA also recommends the state increase teacher pay. While the consultants determined that Wyoming’s teachers earn more than teachers in other regional states, that gap is starting to close.
“After adjusting for inflation and rising wages in non-teaching jobs, teacher salaries in Wyoming have fallen by up to 13 percent since 2012,” the report states.
The consultants also found that districts often pay their teachers above the salary included in the Legislature’s education funding model. That results in a wide range of salaries across the state’s 48 school districts.
The report shows there is about an $18,000-a-year difference between districts with the highest salaries and districts with the lowest salaries.
Sommers said the recommendation wasn’t surprising to him.
“Frankly, (districts) wouldn’t pay those salaries to teachers if they could hire them at a lower cost,” he said.
APA’s draft report also includes recommendations that the state further study the funding models for special education and transportation.
The consultants provided some suggestions regarding what the Wyoming Department of Education might research regarding special education needs.
Currently, the state reimburses 100 percent of districts’ special education costs.
Sommers said, “(The report) really didn’t generate any really actionable items that we could act on immediately on those two pieces.”
He said the final report from APA might contain further recommendations, but he hasn’t seen any at this time.
“My understanding of their primary task was to provide us another look at education funding in Wyoming and to tell us what is our constitutional requirement with education,” Sommers said.
“As it relates to special ed and transportation, I didn’t see in there where they gave us a recommendation.”
Sommers said his other concern is that APA did not analyze administrator salaries. He said when lawmakers asked, APA pointed out that they didn’t include such an analysis in their proposal.
“We thought it was implicit, and I guess it’s not. I’m disappointed that it didn’t occur,” he said.
He added that they probably will use the administrative salary analysis previously conducted by Picus Odden & Associates to address those salaries.
Sommers said he would have preferred more in-depth work by the consultants.
“In some aspects, I wish we would have had a little more meat on the bone,” he said.
But he added that he may be expecting too much of national consultants, and that perhaps some of the statewide research is best performed by the Wyoming Department of Education.
Sommers said that once the Legislature sees APA’s model, the body could decide it prefers its own model, as it has done in the past with Picus Odden & Associates.
“We can fund education any way we want, but then there are repercussions, not only to education, but there could be repercussions in the courts if we don’t somewhat follow kind of the consultant’s approach or at least the dollars that are suggested,” he said.
But exactly what those dollar suggestion will be still remains to be seen.