- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - School administrators and local citizens urged Wyoming lawmakers Monday to avoid disrupting the state’s public education system any more than absolutely necessary as they seek solutions to a looming $360 million K-12 shortfall.

Several hundred people turned out for a House Education Committee public hearing on a comprehensive education finance bill that would change how the state calculates enrollment, shorten the school year by five days and freeze special-education funding.

Other provisions would raise the state sales tax from 4 to 4.5 percent, with the additional funding going to schools.

Wyoming faces the $360 million K-12 shortfall amid declining state revenue caused by downturns in the coal, oil and natural gas industries. Nobody expects the problem to resolve itself any time soon, and a 16-member special committee of state lawmakers proposed in the bill would hire outside experts and hold meetings around the state as it tackled the problem during the next couple of years.

Still, the scope of the bill up for consideration over the remaining five weeks of this year’s legislative session appeared to spook school officials. Wyoming’s school-finance system was a result of years of litigation and legislation, said Kirk Schmidt, assistant superintendent of finance for Fremont County School District 21 in Fort Washakie.

“It’s a very complicated system, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. To try to make changes on the fly right now is kind of dangerous,” Schmidt told the lawmakers.

In the past, school finance debates in Wyoming have pitted poorer and small districts against bigger and richer ones. Not this time.

The funding crisis doesn’t demand immediate action, agreed Kirby Eisenhauer, associate superintendent of Campbell County School District 1 in Gillette. “This is too big, it’s too fragile, it’s too complicated and it’s too important to rush through,” Eisenhauer said.

Any cuts made should be across the board as much as possible rather than target specific areas, said Colby Gull, superintendent of Uinta County School District 6 in Lyman. “It makes it easier for the local school districts to make those decisions rather than have the legislature make those decisions for us,” Gull said.

Former state Rep. Mary Throne, a Democrat who used to serve on the committee, urged the lawmakers not to harm teachers with cuts. “They are not responsible for the drop in oil,” Throne said to applause.

The committee held the hearing at Cheyenne East High School auditorium, which was filled nearly to capacity.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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