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SCSD1: Lack of inflation adjustment from Legislature hurting school districts

RANCHESTER — Sheridan County School District 1 has joined forces with six other Wyoming school districts to form a coalition leading the charge to convince the state Legislature to resume an inflation adjustment to the school funding program.

Calling themselves the Wyoming School District Coalition for an External Cost Adjustment, the group says K-12 schools statewide have been shortchanged a total of $151 million over fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013. That figure is also expected to increase once last year’s data is calculated.

Article three of state statutes covers state financial support and it states that after determining the amount to be included in the foundation program for each school district, that amount “shall be adjusted to provide for the effects of inflation.”

On Feb. 23, 2001, a case between the state of Wyoming and the Campbell County School District was heard before the Wyoming Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the state funding in place at the time.

As part of the case, the Legislature retained the services of Management Analysis & Planning Associates, LLC., a credentialed consulting firm with expertise in public school finance, to assist in developing a school operation financing system which would meet the constitutional standard established by the court.

MAP advised the Legislature that teacher salaries must be inflation-adjusted on an annual or, at a minimum, bi-annual basis.

In the opinion of the courts published in the outcome of the case it states, “four years have passed, and only a 1.3 percent adjustment has occurred which does not reflect the actual inflation during those four years. Based on the state’s own evidence in this record and common sense, we cannot condone that result.”

SCSD1 Superintendent Marty Kobza said this court precedent and state statutes show the current actions of the Legislature are unconstitutional and that is why the coalition is requesting that Wyoming’s schools recoup these funds.

“We’ve started the discussion to bring to the attention of legislators in our areas the true impacts of not have an ECA over the last four years,” Kobza said. “And it isn’t a matter of whether the state has the revenue available or not. The taxpayers have done their job and there seems to be plenty of revenue available to fund this, it’s just a matter of whether or not it’s being funneled back to our local communities or it’s being held at a state level.”

Kobza identified the impacts on SCSD1 specifically as decreased staffing, increased classroom sizes and the inability to place the preferred amount of focus on science, technology, engineering and math learning, among other things.

In fiscal year 2011, the last year following a full ECA, the district employed 103.99 certified staff members and 75 classified staff members. Last year, after three years without the adjustment, the district employed 96.42 certified staff members and 59 classified staff members for a total cut of 23.57 staff.

All the while, the enrollment of the district has continued to increase causing kindergarten through third-grade classrooms’ teacher to student ratios to rise above the state mandated 16:1 ratio to 17.4:1.

Statewide focus on STEM programming is also suffering as certain reading, science, art, technology and enrichment programs have been eliminated and desired STEM programming has been unable to launch.

“We’ve been able to retain people this year, but at the end of the day people still have to buy gas and buy groceries so we need to be able to ensure that their purchasing power remains intact,” Kobza said. “One of the important things to remember is those monies really do have an impact on our local economy where as those funds that aren’t received can’t be spent locally, which has a negative impact overall.”

On July 9, several members of the coalition including superintendents and business managers met with Gov. Matt Mead to discuss how this is affecting students throughout Wyoming.

In the meeting, Mead requested more information on the loss of STEM programming resulting from the lack of adjusted funding.

One example of such Kobza intends to present is the stalling of Cisco, a coding program for kids currently available in SCSD1 middle schools that was intended to expand to high school but hasn’t due to lack of funding.

“It comes down to having someone who can teach it,” Kobza said. “The coding guy in middle school also teaches technology at the high school so if we wanted to add another technology program we would need to go out and hire additional staffing, and without the adjustment we just don’t have the funding to do that.”

During the last recalibration in 2010 the Legislature hired a consultant to come in and identify areas of inflationary costs in schools which included salaries, supplies and utility costs and the coalition used the legislative consultant’s model and what they said the increases were over the last four years to calculate that dollar amount.

As such, the coalition of districts believe the $151 million is owed to the schools, but the group has a larger goal in mind.

“From our standpoint, what we’re truly after is we would like to have whatever index they are going to use to calculate the adjustments be put into the laws and work with the Legislature to pass a bill that would more clearly define annual, cumulative inflation adjustments to ensure this doesn’t continue to affect school programming going forward.”

Kobza said that initial attempts to resolve the issue with the Legislature without litigation have been successful and it seems to the coalition that maybe the state heads just needed a reminder that this is something that is mandated.

“Not having the adjustment, the staff see it in their own lives,” he added. “Nothing at Wal-Mart is going down in price so it affects the value of their dollar in the end.”

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