CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee voted Monday to reduce the recommended external cost adjustment for K-12 education by $60.1 million.
Gov. Mark Gordon will receive the recommendation next month from the committee for an amount of only $10.1 million. If approved as recommended, those funds would go toward energy and supplies costs for the first year of the 2023-24 biennium education budget.
The cut goes against a recommendation made by the Joint Education Interim Committee at the beginning of October. Lawmakers on that committee approved an external cost adjustment worth nearly $72 million after hearing testimony from data analysts, educators and other advocates in Wyoming.
The cost adjustment was meant to address not only the rising costs of energy and supplies due to inflation, but salaries of professional and non-professional staff. Close to $50 million of the funding was supposed to support districts struggling to hire and retain employees because salaries haven't kept pace with the market.
There hasn't been a significant adjustment for inflation and market-value costs between recalibration periods in more than a decade, which has led to a deficit in the funding model for education. The legislative funding model is currently lower than the evidence-based model, which has led to a gap in funding of almost $108 million.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, a member of the Joint Education Committee, told her colleagues on the Appropriations Committee that they might not understand the impacts of the gap.
“We’re slightly below what that cost basis is,” she said. “And so, to me, that meant we needed to take the ECA discussion much more seriously. Our obligation by the Campbell (Supreme Court case) decisions is that $1 today should be equal to $1 yesterday when it comes to funding education.”
Connolly said without the external cost adjustment, those dollars would not be equal.
Carbon County School District 2 Superintendent Jim Copeland agreed and explained how it takes away the purchasing power districts have had in the past. Reports from the Wyoming Department of Education for the 2020-21 school year confirm this, as expenditures, on average, were between 4% and 23% higher than expected.
The result was a strain on superintendents and school boards across the state that had to make difficult decisions regarding the distribution of funds. Without state lawmakers taking inflation into consideration, districts were left with no choice but to cut programs and faculty. In Laramie County School District 1, for instance, that meant losing athletic programs for fifth and sixth graders, among other cuts.
Wyoming Education Association government relations specialist Tate Mullen testified alongside others as to the necessity of the adjustment. He said the decision made by the Joint Appropriations Committee would directly affect the quality of education in Wyoming.
“The influx of dollars in the external cost adjustment is incredibly important for our districts,” he said, “and allows them to pay for the salaries and things that we need to deliver the education that has a substantial impact on our student outcomes.”
Nonetheless, members of the Appropriations Committee voted to approve just 14% of the funds recommended by the Education Committee.
And not only were funds reduced, but a discussion regarding the external cost adjustment for professional and non-professional staff, such as teachers and bus drivers, was not allowed. After the initial vote to allocate funds for energy and supplies expenditures, Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, asked the chairmen of the committee to have a conversation on the second component of the recommendation.
JAC Co-Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said no and adjourned the meeting for a break. Committee members returned a short time later to address the pension plans for firefighters.
This was the last Appropriations Committee deliberation before the governor submits his biennium budget for the upcoming budget session. He may accept or modify the recommendations made by the JAC, but for now, the $10.1 million extra for education stands as is.