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Casper, Wyo. — Wyoming legislators will gather in coming weeks to address a looming education funding crisis that officials have described in the grimmest of terms.

Devastating. Catastrophic. Like falling off a cliff.

Wyoming faces a $700 million education funding shortfall in the next two-year budget cycle. But Gov. Matt Mead and legislators have stressed that cuts alone won’t solve the problem.

Instead, lawmakers, educators and other officials are discussing a number of methods for addressing the situation. Chief among them is legislation that would would increase class sizes and affect the state’s public education funding model.

“We’re going to have to look for a major new revenue stream,” Rep. John Freeman, D-Green River, said. “Whether it’s coming from savings into education or new fees or whatever, but I think we have to put everything on the table and look at the best for our students.”

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, said the state has “broken its piggy bank” and moved more than $550 million to fund the next two years of public education. But with that, the safety net is gone.

Rep. Steve Harshman, the Republican chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee and next year’s House speaker, has proposed a bill to create a supercommittee to address the issue. He said it would be composed of eight legislators, including two each from the joint committees on education, appropriation and revenue.

The committee would also include advisers from key stakeholders, like state educators, and the supercommittee would travel the state to gather more input.

Mead has called for a task force and he told the Star-Tribune recently that he’s “99 percent confident” that it will happen this session.

“I can’t stress enough that we have a real crisis on our hands,” he has said.

That fact hasn’t been lost on lawmakers or state education officials.

“Certainly everybody is a little on edge in the education world about how we manage this in the best way possible,” said Dicky Shanor, the state Department of Education’s chief of staff.

Northrup was more blunt.

“We can’t cut our way out of this,” he said.

Models and sizes

But one of the ways lawmakers could cut is by increasing class sizes. Currently, grades four and five often have class sizes of 16, as dictated by the state’s education funding model. Sixth-grade classes may have 16 or 21 students, depending on if they’re part of an elementary or middle school. From seventh grade on, there are typically 21 students per class.

Those class sizes might vary by district; for instance, some classes in Laramie School District No. 1 have more, and the money saved from having larger classes is used for other programs.

The education committee is looking at two potential bills for increasing class sizes in Wyoming. Legislators said the bill most likely to advance would increase class sizes to 21 for fourth- and fifth-graders and to 22 for sixth- through twelfth-graders, to the tune of about $35 million in savings.

Another bill that will be considered by the Joint Education Committee would restore the evidence-based model for funding education. For years, the state has funded education above that level. Chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, has described it as the Legislature putting ornaments atop a Christmas tree. This second bill would strip away the ornaments, saving about $36 million.

Educators were wary of both bills. John Lyttle, the superintendent of Laramie No. 1, said it would be devastating. His district could lose about $6.6 million should the class size bill pass and more than $13 million with the evidence-based model bill, according to a memorandum sent to the Joint Education Committee.

“It would be a crisis,” he said.

Program problems

Lyttle said programs like school resource officers and extended-day programs for students who need more time to learn could face hard scrutiny from his district should funding evaporate.

District officials have been preparing for reductions, but Lyttle said they weren’t prepared for the scale of the cuts that might be coming.

“This goes way beyond that,” he said.

Sweetwater County School District No. 2 Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo was similarly grim about the toll the class-size bill could have on her district.

“Of course that’s significant,” she said, adding that it equates to jobs for teachers and programs for kids. While she couldn’t say what could be cut, she said things like the school’s new FFA program would get a hard look.

Sweetwater County is especially vulnerable to cuts related to class size, said Freeman, the Green River representative, because both of its districts also have declining enrollment, a factor that will also cost a district money.

In the face of cuts, superintendents said they’d have to examine extracurricular activities, travel, music and arts programs and more.

Big Horn School District No. 2 Superintendent Rick Woodford said his district hopes to protect some vital offerings, like career-oriented programs.

“Any kind of cuts that’s handed out, we’re going to have to either reduce programs, eliminate programs or eliminate staffing,” said Ray Schulte, superintendent for Park County School District No. 6.

Layoffs

Eliminating staff weighed heavy on many educators’ minds. The lion’s share of many districts’ budgets, between 80 and 85 percent, is set aside for salaries. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to cut, officials said.

“It could be 10 or 15, maybe 20 positions. It might be three or four different programs,” Schulte said. “That’s what we’d have to do.”

“We have to look at all of our support providers, from counselors to nurses to all those things that we do on the peripheral that we do to help our kids,” said Woodford, the Bighorn No. 2 superintendent.

Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he realized that because of how prominent a role staffing plays in budgets, staffing reductions comes with cuts.

He added that legislators sympathize with educators’ anxiety and that none of them are looking forward to cutting funds.

“I don’t know any of the legislators down there who are going to be excited about reducing budgets in education, but we have to face reality,” he said.

Natrona County School District Superintendent Steve Hopkins said the Natrona County school board’s top priority was to avoid layoffs.

But he also acknowledged the difficulty of achieving that goal with the cuts that could be coming Natrona’s way via the Joint Education Committee’s bills. Depending on how the bills fare, that cut could be as much as $6.5 million for Natrona, according to the memorandum sent to the committee.

“If those cuts come all at once, clearly there may not be enough retirements and resignations to pull off the number (of staff reductions) needed,” he said. But he, like many other superintendents, said he hoped the Legislature would give the districts time and flexibility to adjust.

A dollar removed

Several officials warned of making drastic cuts just as the seeds of a well-funded education system were starting to bear fruit.

“I’m concerned that cuts, particularly drastic ones, would eliminate our (academic) gains,” said superintendent Dave Barker of Fremont County School District No. 1.

That sentiment was echoed by departing state Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, who said she wasn’t “really fond” of either bill.

“I think it takes time in education to see growth and improvement, and I think our investments are paying off,” she said. “And if we truly want to grow our economy, we need to keep our education system to attract” families and business to Wyoming.

Throne referenced Wyoming students’ success on the 2015 national Assessment of Educational Progress, in which the state outpaced the national average.

Laramie County No. 1’s Lyttle said his district has been putting in safety nets and initiatives to help students achieve and it’s starting to pay off with improved graduation rates.

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“I’m very concerned and not feeling very good about (cuts) at all,” Lytte said. “We’re getting some fantastic results (from education programs), and it feels like the rug is being pulled out from underneath us.”

All of those programs and safety nets that are important to his district would receive a serious look, he said.

Kaumo, superintendent of of Sweetwater No. 2, said her district has been working closely with the Legislature, giving lawmakers information about the work it has done and the success it has had.

“Because ultimately every dollar removed is a dollar from a child,” she said.

Several officials advocated for a slow approach. Hopkins said he’s spoken with legislators about spreading out the cuts and giving districts time to adjust. If the Legislature could use some rainy day funds for a year, Natrona County’s board could also “scrape together some one-time money” to soften the impact of any severe cuts.

Superintendent Woodford also said the Legislature should dip into reserve funds and see what happens with the energy industry. Schulte echoed that call and asked for a collaborative approach.

“I hope we can meet somewhere in the middle at the end of the day to come up with a plan that’s maybe more student-friendly than just having this falling-off-a-cliff type approach,” he said.

Throne also advocated a slow approach that looked at the entire education funding model, and she predicted that a piecemeal approach — such as looking at just increasing class sizes — ultimately wouldn’t succeed.

“You can’t just go in and say, ‘Oh, everything’s so expensive, and we have nothing coming in’ and just slash and burn and hope everything’s going to be OK,” she said.

Looking elsewhere

In a conference call last week, the governor said that some legislators had talked about looking at special education and transportation, as well as district consolidation.

But there was little appetite for targeting any of those areas — at least in the near term — among the legislators who spoke to the Star-Tribune for this story.

Transportation and special education both are fully subsidized by the state, meaning every dollar spent by a district on either is repaid.

Northrup said some legislators had approached him about the possibility of having districts pay 10 or 15 percent of transportation or special education costs. But he said he’d examined transportation and was comfortable with it.

“I just don’t think there’s a lot of abuse in transportation,” he said. While the dollars spent by districts on transportation have gone up, it’s stayed the same in terms of budgetary proportions.

He said that though some 40 passenger buses might transport only a handful of students every day, he’d rather they be traveling down a highway in a tank-like yellow bus than a Suburban. His kids were in a school bus when it was hit by a truck, and the damage to the bus was minimal, Northrup said.

Northrup added that while he hasn’t studied it, he doesn’t expect any financial abuse in special education, either.

Sen. Landen agreed.

“I’m not real crazy about delving very deeply into either one of those issues, either,” he said. The reality of Wyoming being “a long ways from anywhere else” makes long-distance busing a necessity, he said.

Consolidating districts also received a lukewarm response.

“It isn’t going to save a whole boatload of money,” Freeman said. “The problem with that is a lot of these small towns, they rely on their schools to maintain their identities.”

But Coe refused to rule anything out in the future.

“I think there’ll probably be a look at special education and transportation,” he said.

He said that a consolidation effort statewide could save $7.5 million but said such effort would be a consolidation of administrative functions in counties with multiple districts. He stressed that he did not support closing schools.

He also said it’s important to underscore that the bills before the education committee are still early in the process.

“We’re a long way from finalizing things,” he said. “We have to start someplace.”

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