A left-wing group has accused Sen. President Eli Bebout and other Senate Republicans of using the school funding review process as "political cover" for education cuts while taking aim at the speed and transparency of the process itself.
Better Wyoming, which bills itself as "a communications hub for progressive politics," accused Bebout of preparing to introduce sweeping cuts to public education should the work of the re-calibration committee -- a group of lawmakers charged with overseeing consultants' review of school financing -- not produce significant cost savings.
The state's school system faces a $530 million funding deficit in the coming two-year budget cycle, according to estimates from the Legislative Service Office. Earlier this year, lawmakers from both the House and the Senate called for re-calibration to begin three years ahead of schedule, apparently as a way to look at cutting into the shortfall.
"When (re-calibration) fails to significantly reduce costs, (Bebout's) going to to try his damnedest to push through legislation to increase class sizes and cut school programs," Better Wyoming writes.
On Friday, Bebout denied that he was using re-calibration as political cover. He said that the process will have to play out but added that if re-calibration ends and lawmakers are advised by consultants to spend the same amount -- or even more -- on schools, then he would want to have a serious discussion about the broader funding system itself. That system was forged through years of lawsuits and beneath the watchful eyes of the state Supreme Court.
He reiterated his opposition to any tax increases and said he supported a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature oversight of education spending, rather than the courts. A bill to bring the issue to Wyoming voters passed the Senate but died in the House earlier this year.
At the core, Bebout said, is his and other Senate Republicans' belief that Wyoming spends too much for the results it's getting.
"I just think we need to have an overall evaluation of how we spend the money and get the results for the money we’re spending," he said, adding that a $200 million cut -- phased in over time -- could be a solution.
Boyd Brown, the superintendent of Campbell County School District, said that there is concern about the process being "political cover" for cuts. But he added that the Senate doesn't make decisions alone. Indeed, the House last session killed a number of Senate measures that would've rolled out steep cuts or changed the landscape of education funding in Wyoming.
"I'm not quite as skeptical as the authors of the (Better Wyoming) press release," he said.
Still, state educators have long been concerned that the re-calibration process will be used solely to reduce funding. They and some lawmakers -- including committee co-chairman Rep. Albert Sommers -- have maintained that re-calibration is a process to determine what constitutes an adequate education for all of Wyoming's students. After that's established, lawmakers and the consultants they hired will have to determine how to pay for it.
"In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” House Speaker Steve Harshman asked at the beginning of the first re-calibration meeting in May. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.”
Theoretically, educators and legislators have said, the cost for paying for education in Wyoming could go up after re-calibration.
Based off of the fear that re-calibration will not be used as a good-faith way to look at how Wyoming students should be taught, several large districts have passed resolutions authorizing them to sue the state should they feel cuts have gone too far.
Bebout said he thought lawsuits were the wrong approach, but he appeared unfazed by the possibility.
"Have at it," he said.
Better Wyoming also accused the re-calibration committee of doing its work hastily -- a fact acknowledged by the committee -- and "outside the public's sight." (Lawmakers have met three times since May: twice in Casper, and once in Riverton. That meeting was broadcast by Wyoming PBS.)
The timeline certainly presents complications, as pointed out by both lawmakers and prominent educators. The consultants must review the current funding model and prepare at least three alternative approaches, along with other work, by December or January.
The cause of the time crunch is clear: Re-calibration usually takes place every five years. This time, it's is three years ahead of schedule and occurs in the midst of a funding crisis such as the state has not seen for years.