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Last Day of School Mountain View

Students gather around second grade teacher Kirstin Neal at Mountain View Elementary School in June. Lawmakers on Friday recommended a $26.6 million inflation adjustment payment for education.

Wyoming lawmakers recommended providing $26.6 million to school districts here via an inflation adjustment Friday, less than 24 hours after a coalition of districts distributed a letter from an attorney criticizing the state's lack of action in recent years. 

The Joint Education Committee voted 9 to 3 to add the money to what's known as the external cost adjustment, or ECA, which is essentially a mechanism used to help Wyoming schools offset inflation. If the recommendation is approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee in November, the addition would be the first ECA bump in several years. 

The ECA is separate from the regional cost adjustment, which is a mechanism used to give districts in costlier places -- like Jackson -- more money to hire. Lawmakers are also seriously considering changes to that adjustment, which may result in a significant hit for Natrona County.

The move to improve the ECA -- opposed by Republican Sens. Hank Coe and Affie Ellis and Rep. Evan Simpson -- came after the coalition of school districts delivered a letter describing the need for such an adjustment. The group included Laramie County School District No. 1, Sweetwater County School Districts 1 and 2 and several others. Natrona County School District is not a member of the coalition.

In its letter, the coalition criticized the Legislature's 2009 decision to forego the ECA and replace it with a "monitoring" process. The districts wrote that the state decided to hold off on giving an inflation bump because the model that funds Wyoming schools was richer than law required. Essentially, the schools were being given more money than they technically should have, so why give even more funding each year to make up for inflation? Instead, lawmakers decided to monitor the model until what schools received matched what was required.

Educators have not accepted that move quietly. Over the past two years, especially in the wake of statewide cuts, administrators have repeatedly criticized the lack of an ECA. On Thursday, Sweetwater No. 2 Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo said the loss in purchasing power and legislative cuts was making it difficult for her to make hires.

Down in the southwest corner of the state, Little-Kaumo said her district was struggling to compete with Utah, as that state's governor calls for improved teaching salaries. Little-Kaumo's district hasn't been able to hire a needed custodian, so she and others are vacuuming the floors.

"I do not know what else to do. I'm not sleeping," she told lawmakers Thursday. "We cannot continue to educate kids and have people not understand that the erosion of purchasing power has an exponential effect on kids." 

The coalition, and educators more broadly, has argued that the ECA isn't about providing a funding boost. It's about keeping things constant.

"In short, ECAs do nothing more than maintain the status quo, i.e. purchasing power, of districts in between recalibrations, by adjusting to provide for the effects of inflation," the letter, sent by Hickey & Evans, the coalition's Cheyenne-based attorneys.

Recalibrations are the state process, undertaken every five years, through which lawmakers study the school funding model and determine what's needed to provide an equitable education to all Wyoming students.

Though the committee took action Friday, it's far from certain that an ECA bump will actually happen. The Joint Appropriations Committee holds the purse strings, and whether that body chooses to give money to a school funding system that some lawmakers consider overfunded is far from certain. 

Multiple challenges

Still, educators argue that they're being hit from all sides: They've faced cuts in three consecutive legislative sessions as costs continue to go up and enrollment -- a key factor in determining a district's funding -- have fallen steadily since the 2015 bust. 

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Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association, said in an interview the "court was very clear": The Legislature must make inflation adjustments regularly. He was referring to a Wyoming Supreme Court decision from several years ago, which -- as quoted in the coalition's letter -- found that "the amount computed for each district ... shall be adjusted to provide for the effects of inflation." 

Farmer noted that a state report showed that, after recent cuts, Wyoming was now underfunding its education system by $22 million. So, he said, even under the legislators' monitoring system, the model was still signaling that it was short of funds.

David Northrup, the Joint Education Committee's co-chair, said he was "glad to see the ECA (increase) was suggested" and that the state needs to maintain funding for the model. 

"We gotta do something," he said. "What do you want to do? Go to court?" 

But Northrup said he thought the chances were "thin" that the Appropriations Committee would agree to all $26.6 million. He expected those lawmakers would trim it, and he guessed the final number would be $22 million, enough to bring the funding levels back to where the model dictates.

Teresa Chaulk, the superintendent in Lincoln County School District No. 1 and a member of the ECA coalition, said the inflation adjustment wasn't about more money; it was about keeping districts as whole as possible.

"I do believe that Wyoming is not in the dire straits it was two, three years ago," she said.

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