CHEYENNE — More than nine months after the Wyoming Education Association filed a lawsuit against the state for failing to fund K-12 education funding adequately, a trial date has been scheduled for June of 2024.
Wyoming Deputy Attorney General Mark Klaassen is the head of the School Finance Litigation Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. He announced the trial date Tuesday before the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee. He said the Wyoming Education Association v. Wyoming case is set for a five-week-long bench trial in Laramie County District Court.
“For some folks, that may seem like a long time out,” Klaassen told the committee. “That’s not unusual in litigation. It allows a period of time for discovery, for motion practice. In fact, that may be a pretty narrow timeframe, given the scope of the issues that we have in the case.”
Klaassen was responsible for giving an update on the lawsuit at the request of the committee and said he would give a high level explanation of the case due to the sensitivities of litigation.
The lawsuit was initiated Aug. 18, 2022, by the Wyoming Education Association, and eight school districts across the state have now joined the case as plaintiffs, including Laramie County School District 1.
Their motions to intervene were received after the latest legislative session, and Klaassen said they were not opposed by District Judge Peter Froelicher.
Froelicher has overseen the case since last year and denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit after he heard arguments in early November from Senior Assistant Attorney General Sean Towles and WEA attorney Pat Hacker.
The judge stated in a ruling released in December that the association had standing to bring a claim, and its members have a tangible interest in the outcome of the dispute.
But he did dismiss claims for attorneys fees and punitive damages alleged in the case.
WEA President Grady Hutcherson made a statement following the court’s denial of the state’s motion for dismissal and said education in Wyoming is beginning to suffer, and students can’t be left waiting for adequate resources. He said he was grateful to the court “for affirming the association’s ability to stand up on behalf of students, families and public schools.”
“No one wanted this to come to litigation, but what spurred WEA to file this lawsuit in the first place is the fact that 95,000 Wyoming students are being shortchanged, as public schools are continuously being asked to do more with less,” he said. “WEA is proud to protect our shared societal interest in providing adequate resources for our students.”
This is not the first time the state’s K-12 funding system has been challenged, and Klaassen reminded lawmakers there has been a long history of such legal battles.
“Wyoming, like many other states, has included clauses in its Constitution at the time of statehood about the obligation of the state to provide instruction and a system of public schools,” he said. “Eventually, those clauses were used as a basis for parties to begin to challenge the way that states were funding education — both the fairness of that funding, meaning was it being equitably distributed, as well as later, the adequacy of that funding.”
He said the fights started with a Washakie case back in 1980 and was followed by a series of cases referred to as the Campbell cases. Four decisions were issued by the Wyoming Supreme Court beginning in the 1990s, and the final decision was issued in 2008.
“That last decision in Campbell essentially said that our school finance system, as it had been through many different iterations and adjustments as it was in place, was a constitutional system.That it provided enough funding and that it was fair to all the districts,” said Klaassen. “The challenging districts and WEA now claim that’s no longer the case.”
He said the WEA complaint was more wide-ranging, while the districts’ complaints were direct, but they cover the same issues. He said the main issues are the external cost adjustment and salary levels being paid when it comes to operations, and they are seeking more funding for other model components, such as tutors, social workers, counselors and support staff. Additionally, they are requesting funding for school lunch program expenses and to require the state to fund security personnel for schools.
“The allegations are that the state is not properly assessing facilities,” Klaassen added. “The allegation is the state is manipulating and changing its evaluation methods to avoid having to fund new facilities. There’s also a claim about the elimination of suitability as a factor in determining the adequacy of facilities.”
The deputy attorney general walked lawmakers through other aspects of the case and answered questions on constitutional changes but ultimately refrained from explaining the state’s position. He said he wanted to give them an idea of the timing and trajectory of the case, leading into the date of the trial about a year from now.
“There always has been this tension between the discretion and the prerogatives of the legislative body and the requirements of the Constitution,” he concluded. “Courts have endeavored, I think, over the years in different ways and different fashions to figure out what that balance is.
“I’d like to talk to you in more depth about some of those issues. I’m reluctant to do so in a public setting here, but there are certainly a lot of things that we will be putting forward in defense of those legislative prerogatives.”
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