CHEYENNE – Young students will remain in smaller class sizes in Wyoming’s elementary schools.
The state School Facilities Commission voted Thursday to return to rules requiring school districts to keep class sizes as close to 16 as possible in kindergarten through third grade.
And it’s good news for Laramie County School District 1.
Dave Bartlett, LCSD1’s assistant superintendent of support operations, said, “If they go back to everything as it was prior to the change in methodology, then it is, we believe, a benefit to the district, definitely.”
The commission’s vote Thursday was part of an effort to finalize rules that would have placed up to 25 students in each K-3 classroom.
Troy Decker, planning supervisor for the School Facilities Division, explained in September 2017 that the division calculates the number of students each K-3 classroom can hold by dividing the room’s square footage by 40.
Before the commission changed the capacity policy in June 2017, the division capped the number of students per K-3 classroom at 16, regardless of how many students the calculation said could fit.
The new policy capped that number at 25, which meant some classrooms might have nine more students.
A commission report from June 2017 showed that, before the policy was changed, LCSD1 was considered to be 126 students over capacity. After the change, the calculation showed that LCSD1 had 705 open seats in the district.
Those numbers were calculated from LCSD1’s enrollment data from the 2016-17 year and would be different today. Enrollment in the district has increased by possibly 150 students since then. Enrollment is finalized at the beginning of October.
When the change was made, commission documents showed that the policy change was meant to complement state statute following the Legislature’s repeal of Wyoming Statute 21-13-307(a)(iv) in 2017.
That statute required each state school district to have no more than 16 students per teacher in kindergarten through the third grade, or to obtain a waiver of the requirement from the state Department of Education.
Lisa Weigel, former chief policy officer for the Department of Education, released a memo in March 2017 explaining what the repeal of the statute means for school districts.
“Effective immediately, the current waiver process to determine eligibility for (Fiscal Year) 2017-18 funding has been suspended. Districts are encouraged to endeavor to staff their K-3 classrooms at the 16:1 ratio as recommended by W.S. 21-9-101(d),” she wrote.
After the commission changed the capacity policy in June 2017, the Wyoming Education Association’s attorney sent a letter to the commission stating that the commission had violated the state’s rule-making process when it changed the policy without giving a notice of intent and accepting public comment.
Shelby Carlson, School Facilities Division administrator, said that, after the commission changed the policy in 2017, members received comments stating that the policy should be made into a formal rule.
As a result, the commission enacted emergency rules to temporarily allow the policy change while the commission followed the rule-making procedures. Emergency rules allow an agency to use a rule without offering a notice of intent or accepting public comment.
Carlson said the emergency rules, which can remain in effect for 120 days, expired recently. The commission held a public hearing Tuesday in Cody to hear district and resident opinions on the policy change as a possible permanent rule.
Bartlett said many school districts – probably more than 20 in his estimation – either showed up in Cody to speak against the rule change or sent in written comments against it.
Carlson said the commission subsequently voted to revert to the previous rules and a capped K-3 classroom capacity of 16 students.
Bartlett said LCSD1 averages about 18 students in each K-3 classroom, though some have 12 or 13 and some may have 20 or more.
“Part of that is because we do not want to move students out of their home school if we can help it,” he said.
Bartlett explained in 2017 that the policy change would have meant every K-3 classroom would have had to house 25 kids or as many as the square footage allowed before the state would consider the district over capacity and consider paying for another school.
But that would have meant LCSD1 eventually would have to shuffle kids into various schools around the district to fill empty seats, while district officials prefer to keep students closer to their neighborhood schools.
Bartlett said the School Facilities Division will not recommend new construction in the district until the entire district is over capacity, regardless of whether individual schools are over capacity.
He said this return to the previous policy should mean that the district qualifies for funding for a new school because the district once again is considered over capacity.
Carlson said the commission soon will have a public telephone meeting to formally adopt the rules, and then the rules will be sent to the attorney general, Governor’s Office, Legislative Service Office and secretary of state for approval.