- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Legislature this month approved nearly $231 million in new K-12 school construction for the next fiscal year, but the building bonanza may be coming to an end because the state’s main funding source for school building projects is expected to dry up.

Since 1998, the state has tapped the hundreds of millions of dollars it has received in coal lease bonus money to fund billions of dollars of school construction projects.

“We’ve ridden a pretty amazing wave,” Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said.

But the federal government’s move to toughen federal carbon pollution standards and other regulations on coal is sapping future investment in coal mining.

As a result, Wyoming is seeing fewer coal lease auctions go through, and state budget projections forecast coal lease bonus money virtually nonexistent in a few years.

“Money is really going to be tight with school capital construction,” Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said.

This summer, lawmakers will be looking at how best to address school construction and maintenance in the long term. The state has about 375 schools.

“How do we do the best job possible of taking care for those resources so that they do last us the expected lifespan? And along with that, how do you put a plan in place so that when schools are ready you can get them replaced?” Landen, who chairs the Select Committee on School Facilities, said.

However, one member of the state School Facilities Commission, which sets school building standards across the state, said lawmakers aren’t doing enough to address the problem.

Commission member Pete Jorgensen said one easy way to save money is to consolidate schools where it makes sense.

“It just appears to me we’re not taking advantage of potential consolidation opportunities, which would do two things: One, better serve students who are currently at smaller schools by having a larger school with a broader curriculum and more face-to-face teachers rather than online. And also save money,” Jorgensen said.

He noted the case of two small districts in Big Horn County where each district has its own separate schools located just 8 miles apart.

The school construction bill contains more than $20 million to design and build a new middle and high school for Big Horn School District 4 in Basin. At the same time, the bill contains about $4.7 million to build a new middle school in Big Horn School District 3 in Greybull, which is 8 miles from Basin. Big Horn 3 also has its own high school in Greybull.

Jorgensen said the two districts, which have a combined K-12 enrollment of about 800 students, could consolidate their schools.

But that’s easier said than done when the local school is a major part of the community where lawmakers live. While a few lawmakers sought to slow down school construction during this year’s budget session, their efforts were overwhelmingly rejected.

“Let’s be honest these school buildings are very, very important to our communities out there,” Landen said. “They’re the nerve center of the communities, and I think the desire of the Legislature has always been to try to maintain as much as possible those identities that come with those schools.”

But as coal lease money dwindles, Landen said, issues like school proximity may become a bigger part of the discussion in school construction.

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