- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The first comprehensive proposals to address Wyoming’s school funding crisis include freezing spending on special education and student transportation costs, dipping heavily into savings, tapping state severance tax collections, increasing class sizes and possibly raising the sales tax.

Bills on public school funding have been introduced in the House and the Senate to address an estimated $400 million annual school funding shortfall.

Wyoming’s K-12 education system has largely been funded by taxes on the fossil fuel industry, which has seen a sharp downturn in the last several of years and a corresponding drop in state revenues from the sector.

The state has also seen a sharp reduction in payments from federal coal leases that officials used to fund billions of dollars in school construction and maintenance funding because of the coal industry downturn.

“The magnitude of it and the suddenness of it … it’s huge,” said Senate President Eli Bebout, who co-sponsored the Senate bill. “But the good news is we’ve prepared ourselves better than we have in the past. It just happened so quickly and so severely … I don’t think any of us anticipated a decline of this magnitude.”

On Monday night, the House Education Committee voted to sponsor a broad proposal for representatives to consider, the Casper Star-Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/2jVfw1C).

“What it did is it modifies the funding model we have now,” said Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee.

If the bill becomes law, the state’s $1.6 billion rainy day fund would transfer $100 million into the main public school funding account on June 30 of each fiscal year, provided the rainy day fund has more than $500 million in it. The rainy day fund is available to use for any state funding purpose.

The bill proposes a 0.5 percent sales tax increase if the rainy day fund drops below $500 million. Revenue from that tax increase would go to the school funding account. The increase will disappear if property tax collections are adequate.

It also calls for diverting a 1 percent severance tax on mineral extraction for the 2019 through 2022 fiscal years into the general fund, and then into the primary school funding account. That 1 percent amounts to about $89.1 million annually.

Freezing special education, which involves special programs for students with disabilities, and transportation funding, which pays for busing students, at the amount spent this school year would save $3.1 million in fiscal year 2019. A special education funding freeze will save an estimated $9.2 million in the next fiscal year.

The state currently pays 100 percent of special education and transportation, meaning local school districts would have to cover any additional costs in those programs.

Other provisions in the House bill include a moratorium on alternative schools established and administered separately from public schools to give parents and students other education options, until at least 2019 and a 10 percent reduction in the current base salaries of superintendents, assistant superintendents and business managers, starting in fiscal year 2018-19.

The Senate proposal also targets transportation and special education funding but would increase class sizes and leave 50 percent of local school administration positions unfilled. It would boost kindergarten class sizes to 19 students by 2019. Class sizes for grades 6-12 would increase to 24 students by 2019.

The Senate bill would save the state more than $37 million next year, nearly $67 million the next year and more than $62 million in fiscal year 2020, according to the Legislative Service Office.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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