District staff dismayed by proposed cuts that would cripple athletics, activities

Uinta County School District No. 1 Superintendent Ryan Thomas speaks during a 2017 board meeting in Evanston. (HERALD FILE PHOTO)

EVANSTON — The 2021 Wyoming Legislative session will continue on March 1, after the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a change in the customary scheduling. An issue that will certainly be addressed through legislation is K-12 education funding. At least two bills that have been introduced and referred to the education committee would dramatically cut funding to public schools.

One of those bills is HB61, sponsored by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which is a lengthy bill that addresses everything from class sizes to the number of principals funded per school based on student population and more. School finance recalibration is a process required by state law in which a team of experts reviews all the factors that go into providing the constitutionally-mandated free and appropriate public education for Wyoming K-12 students and then determines what it would cost to provide that education. Though required every five years, Wyoming legislators have opted to go through the recalibration process more frequently in the past decade, hoping perhaps to find areas to make cuts and save money, though such budget-cutting recommendations have thus far not materialized.

Late last year, the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration met with those experts, approved the funding model recommended by the recalibration process, and then produced HB61, which takes all the details of that model but then cuts $100 million from the funding level recommended by that model. That $100 million amounts to an approximately 6.5% funding cut for all school districts in the state. For Uinta County School District No. 1 in Evanston, that 6.5% cut plus an additional cut due to declining enrollments would amount to approximately $3.3 million.

Another bill, HB89, also tinkers with the funding model approved by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, although in a much more specific fashion. Co-sponsored by numerous legislators, including local freshman Rep. Bob Wharff (R, HD-49). That legislation would cut approximately $50 million from the school funding model, largely through 10% cuts to administrative salaries, cuts to teacher workdays that would result in five fewer contract days and the loss of salary for those days, and 50% cuts to all activity funding.

When asked about his sponsorship of HB89, Wharff said he decided to support HB89 because it represents a 3% cut while HB61 is a 6% cut. He indicated he based his decision on increasing K-12 education costs that have resulted in a tripling of that budget since 2020 and an increase of more than 3,000 full-time employees.

Wharff said for the past several years, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), better known as the state’s “rainy day fund,” has been utilized to backfill some of the gap between revenues and education expenditures. However, the ability to backfill to make up the difference will cease when the LSRA drops below $500 million. As of the most recent fiscal profile available on the wyoleg.gov website, the LSRA held approximately $1.5 billion on July 1, 2020.

Wharff said predicted shortfalls for the next several years are only expected to grow, making cuts to education budgets a necessity. He said HB89 “was intended to minimize the cuts of our teachers,” although it is much more specific than HB61 in terms of the cuts that would be required.

Bubba O’Neill, UCSD No. 1 Activities Director, said those specific cuts to activities would be devastating and would touch “nearly every kid in this district.”

O’Neill explained that 70% of the activities department budget is spent on personnel costs. A mandatory 50% cut means some of those positions — coaches and activity sponsors — would absolutely be lost, which would mean the complete elimination of some programs. Some of the activities currently offered locally at levels from elementary through high school that could be severely impacted or lost altogether include all-state music, art, DECA, FBLA, FFA, marching band, Math Counts, music, robotics, speech and debate, student council, state thespian festival, basketball, cross country, football, golf, indoor track, soccer, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling.

According to O’Neill, lawmakers and others often look to activity budgets as an easy way to make cuts because they’re not specifically required in the “basket of goods” mandated by state law. However, “we’re not talking about dollar signs, we’re talking about human beings,” he said. O’Neill said people comparing activity costs in Wyoming to those in other states often fail to consider that competition in Wyoming often involves overnight stays because of the lengthy traveling times to reach other communities.

He further stressed the importance of activities in the lives of kids. “The connections coaches and sponsors make with the kids and the commitments of both the kids and the staff to those activities…it’s not so easy to replace those,” said O’Neill. “You can’t really place a dollar amount on what’s really provided there. Our kids and our sponsors are able to choose their passions. Football isn’t more valuable than FFA and FFA isn’t more valuable than robotics. What’s so great is that the kids get to choose and commit themselves to something they love.”

O’Neill said students learn responsibility, teamwork and perseverance through activities, which are exactly the types of skills that will help them most later in life. He said the most painful part of HB89 would be those cuts to the activities budgets. “If there’s no money in there for me, that’s fine,” he said, “but don’t take these opportunities from our kids.” He also specifically referenced the timing of the proposed cuts coming while the state and district still grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our kids have been through enough the past several months and they’re throwing this in there now when our kids, coaches, sponsors and parents have already been through a lot. When COVID first hit, there were lots of unknowns, but our teachers and coaches and sponsors came back to work and were excited to do it. Even though there could have been risks to them, they were committed to doing what’s best for kids. I’m proud of our district and our staff and kids,” said O’Neill. “These cuts would just be too close to kids,” he said, adding that he would be happy to sit down with anybody to discuss the value of activities and why these cuts would be devastating.

Evanston High School Speech and Debate Coach Brian Hill said he too is concerned about the proposed cuts to activities. Hill said he previously taught in Utah, where budget cuts resulted in pay-to-play arrangements where parents were faced with several hundred dollars in expenses each year so their kids could participate in activities. Hill said that resulted in huge inequities between families that could afford to spend the money and those who could not. Even though a waiver system was designed to address low-income households, he said so many students qualified for waivers that districts ultimately had to make them progressively more restrictive, rendering them relatively useless in helping students participate.

Hill said activities provide places for students to be after school, help students stay motivated to keep their grades up, and he said he is deeply concerned about behavioral issues, depression and other problems increasing if students aren’t able to participate in the things they love.

District superintendent Ryan Thomas stressed that he is opposed to both HB61 and HB89. “The Constitution of Wyoming is very clear and the Supreme Court has affirmed,” he said, “that funding of education is a priority and must be based on a cost-based model. It is confusing that HB61, which is legislation proposed by the joint recalibration committee whose task is to review the education funding model every five years to ensure a cost-based model, can agree to what it costs to fund education in Wyoming and then cut $100 million from that model.”

“To me, that means the model is no longer cost based and is unconstitutional,” continued Thomas. He said HB89 also attempts to “supersede” the work of the recalibration committee and make very specific cuts to the model “without any input from the legislature’s hired consultants or school district personnel statewide.”

Thomas said local school districts, through elected school boards, determine how to administer the state block grants, including staff salaries, though HB89 would directly impact those salaries. “UCSD No. 1 supports local control of our block grant and the legislature needs to do their job,” he said. “Their job is to fund education in Wyoming at the appropriate level, focusing on an adequate cost-based model. HB61 and HB89 both expose the main flaw with the current funding model and make that flaw more noticeable. The salary amounts used to calculate the block grant for staffing a school district start below what districts currently pay their staff. Calibration consultants have pointed out that flaw in 2010, 2015 and now in 2020. Our legislators continue to ignore the recommendations of their own consultants.”

He continued, “Wyoming has attracted and retained some of the best and most effective educators in the region because of our competitive salaries and benefits. Who is willing to give up the ability to recruit and retain the best classroom teachers?”

In reference to Rep. Wharff’s comments about the projected shortfalls in education funding, Thomas said, “It is very clear looking at those numbers that the state cannot cut their way out of this shortage without devastating education by proposing legislation that cuts funding to a constitutionally-protected right for all Wyoming children. Why are legislators not proposing legislation to increase revenue to the entire state, but more specifically to education, which is a constitutional right? The cuts proposed by HB61 and HB89 extended over the next three years will fundamentally cripple education as we know it in Wyoming.”

Thomas said 21 years have passed since 2000, the time period referenced by Wharff, and everything is more expensive, including all components of providing K-12 education.

Thomas said UCSD No. 1 could make the required cuts for the 2021-22 school year thanks to a healthy reserve account, but pointed out the district has already made budget cuts in five of the last six years. “What are the citizens of Evanston and Wyoming willing to give up — class size, activities, quality educators, clean and well-maintained facilities, safe and orderly school environments – to balance the budget in the future? It is very, very short sighted to think the only solution to the educational funding crisis is to cut administrator salaries, contract days for teachers, activities for students and eliminate cost of living increases for support staff.”

Finally, Thomas referenced the groundbreaking litigation, Campbell County vs. the State of Wyoming, that roiled education funding in the state between 1992 and 2006. Through multiple legal proceedings, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that public education is a fundamental right and that the existing finance system at the time was unconstitutional because it failed to afford equal protection for all students. The Evanston school district was involved in that litigation.

“Education was found by the Supreme Court to be woefully underfunded in 2000. It took additional lawsuits and nearly 10 years from the original Campbell ruling before the funding system was determined by the courts to be cost based…There have been three times the legislature revisited that funding formula in recent years and the cost-based system was found lacking and that was ignored each time by the legislature,” said Thomas. “In my opinion, the salaries found in the model did not keep up with actual salaries because cost of living adjustments were denied amid the legislature’s apparent resistance to fund education appropriately. It may be time to revisit the Campbell decisions.”

When asked if his sponsorship of HB89 means he would oppose HB61, Wharff said that is indeed the case. He further said he believes it doesn’t really matter what specific cuts are outlined in each bill because local school districts will allocate the money as they see fit.

Wharff also said he believes most Wyoming residents do not support a tax increase and are more concerned about the overall size of government.

“I believe that many people are more desirous of seeing the overall size of government reduced in Wyoming rather than seeing their taxes increased. The private sector has been hit hard and those living on a fixed income are struggling as well. Increasing taxes will only cause more difficulty and it doesn’t address the problem of the overall size of government,” said Wharff.

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