Wyoming Legislature update: Joint Education Committee report
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
July 18, 2016
July 11, 2016
Hello Sublette County, on June 13-14 in Casper I participated in a meeting of the Joint Education Committee. During this meeting three important issues rose to the top of the discussions, and they are the Hathaway Scholarship, medically necessary placements, and K12 school finance.
The Hathaway Scholarship Fund has been hugely successful, and has helped a lot of Wyoming students with their college education. The program has not been without its critics. The Hathaway has course completion and GPA requirements, and these requirements push students to seek certain courses, at the expense of others. In my opinion this creates winners and losers within academic programs, the committee will continue to monitor the requirements for the Hathaway. The Hathaway Scholarship program is funded through the Hathaway Scholarship Endowment Fund. This fund was created during the height of the natural gas boom, and based upon what I have been able to ascertain, the bulk of the Fund came from sweeps of excess money in the K12 School funding flows starting in 2005. Like most endowments, only the earnings or a specified percentage of the fund can be spent in any one year. We all thought the Hathaway was monetarily sound, and past reports have shown that income has surpassed scholarship needs by a great deal. However, a report from the Wyoming Treasurer’s office states "At the current rate of income and spending, the State will be able to make payments through June 2018. Given the current spending rate of approximately $16 million per year, there will not be enough residual funds to make a full payment for the first quarter of FY 19. "Our investment income is heavily tied to the bond market, and because bond rates are low we are facing some capital losses this year, instead of capital gains on investments like the past few years. I believe the income from investments will perk up again, but we must continue to monitor this account. We had hoped to increase the scholarship amounts to keep up with rising tuition costs, but that will likely not happen now.
During last winter’s legislative session we passed Senate File 94, which helped institutions deal with medically necessary student placements, court ordered placements. The issue is very complex, and the funding of these students is not well understood by lawmakers or the public. Last session’s fix was just a first step, and more will need to be done to create some equity in the funding process. Doris Woodbury, former Sublette #1 superintendent and retiring BOCES V region executive director, gave us a good presentation on the mission of the BOCES V program, one of several programs around the state supporting these students. The mission is to provide a public education to severely emotionally dysregulated students from across Wyoming. Most of these students are coping with the effects of abuse, neglect, sexual misconduct and childhood trauma. The program cares for them in a therapeutic and healing environment. The BOCES V program children live at a facility in Jackson called the C-V Ranch school, and I had the good fortune last year to tour this facility. BOCES V is paid for by fees from the participating student’s home district and by taxes generated from BOCES V districts. Not all districts pay evenly, and because of testimony at the meeting, the committee asked WDE to put together a task force to provide us with recommendations. These are the neediest of students, and hopefully we can improve the current funding structure.
K12 school finance was placed on the Education Committee’s agenda by the Legislature’s Management Council, with the task of finding further savings in the K12 funding system. Last session, the Legislature reduced funding to districts by 1%, despite the recommendations of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, of which I was a member. I fought these cuts, because the current reduction in state revenues is tied to a shrinking economy, which is resulting in a shrinking student population. Wyoming’s K12 funding model is tied to enrollment, and when enrollment drops so does the dollars generated by the School Foundation Program funding model. This may be the only self-regulated funding system in state government. I lost the argument, and districts like Big Piney, which had seen a substantial reduction in student numbers, were hit with a double whammy. At the meeting, districts asked the Education Committee to restore the cuts made last session, and reminded us of Wyoming’s constitutional mandate to adequately fund education. K12 education, in my opinion, is the most important function of state government. Well educated children are less likely to go to prison or end up on state supported programs. I view education as an economic development tool. In order to attract new businesses to Wyoming, we need to prove to businesses that their employee’s children will receive a good education in Wyoming. Our national ratings prove that Wyoming provides a good education. Now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal in funding education, if we want to attract new businesses to this state. K12 education dollars come primarily from property taxes. I have been told, in Sublette County property taxes have declined 40%, with another 50% reduction on the horizon. We know that the primary funding source for K12 school construction has evaporated, when coal lease bonus money dried up. We will have to find another funding source for K12 school construction, and likely shift money within accounts to shore up K12 school operations dollars. I will remain a strong supporter of K12 education funding during our committee deliberations.