School Funding Cases in Wyoming

in Wyoming Litigation

Historical Background

The struggle over school finance in Wyoming is a battle that has waged on since the 1970s and has been greatly influenced by school funding lawsuits. In 1980, the Wyoming Supreme Court found the funding system unconstitutional in Washakie County School District v. Herschler, 606 P.2d 310. In 1995, in Campbell County School District v. State (Campbell I), 907 P.2d 1238, the court again declared the state school funding system unconstitutional, on equity and adequacy grounds. The Campbell court provided remedial guidelines to the legislature based on the need to prepare high school graduates to become equipped for their future roles as citizens, participants in the political system, and competitors both economically and intellectually. The court also indicated that the opportunity for a quality education should include small class sizes; ample, appropriate provision for at-risk students; and meaningful standards and assessments. Finding that the state constitution established education as the legislature’s “paramount priority,” the court directed the legislature to determine the cost of a quality education and fund it.

Since the Campbell I decision, the legislature has labored diligently to establish a constitutional system of education finance, even in the face of revenue shortfalls.

On February 23, 2001, the Wyoming Supreme Court, in its second Campbell decision, found the state’s new cost-based education finance system capable of fulfilling the Wyoming constitution’s guarantee of an education “appropriate for the times.” The court concluded that the methodology used to develop the costs on which the new system is based was sound, and it reviewed the challenged components of the funding system in detail. Most elements of the system, including class size and teacher salaries, passed constitutional muster, but a few items, the most noteworthy of which is capital funding, were sent back to the legislature for further consideration. The court also emphasized the need for a review of all of the cost-based factors every five years and inflation adjustments at least every two years.

Finding that some school districts’ unfunded capital construction needs “continue to mount,” the court judged the capital portion of the new system inadequate. It also rejected certain adjustments in the system that were not cost-based and directed the legislature to revise them. For example, the court recognized the difficulty of determining the actual costs of educating at-risk students, but held that, until the state develops a way of assessing these costs, it must fully fund the “actual and necessary costs” associated with these students.

Recent Events

On January 8, 2008, the Wyoming Supreme Court found that the State was fully in compliance with the constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient education structure,” and it terminated its jurisdiction of the litigation. Specifically, the Court upheld legislative changes regarding at-risk students, small schools and other items, clarified aspects of its prior decision dealing with the calculation of cost of living adjustments, and upheld the new capital construction system the legislature had adopted since Campbell II. The State had created a School Facilities Commission (“SFC”) responsible of adopting standards and determining, in consultation with school districts, what facilities should be constructed. (Since 2002, the legislature had earmarked about $990 million for capital school construction). The District court had been concerned that as of the time of trial in 2005, little actual construction had been approved, but the Supreme Court concluded that the remaining capital construction issues should be determined on a case-by-case basis through the school district’s right to appeal decisions of the SFC.

Pat Hacker, plaintiffs’ attorney, cautioned that the state had reached a “Washakie moment,” alluding to the 1980 decision. According to Hacker, the legislature had to do what it failed to do in the 1980s—finish the job of restructuring the education funding system after the Supreme Court’s relinquishment of jurisdiction.

Costing Out

To develop the court-ordered cost analysis, the legislature identified and passed into law a list of core knowledge and skills that defined a “proper” education. The state then hired consultants who used the “professional judgment” approach to determine the components necessary to deliver this education. This step involved extensive meetings of groups of local Wyoming educators and then educators from surrounding states who identified all the specific instructional components needed. Finally, the consultants calculated the costs of these components, relying primarily on recent statewide average costs, and developed adjustments for particular types of school districts and students. The legislature used the results of this process in establishing the new funding system.

In 2005, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee and Select School Finance Committee initiated the mandated process of recalibrating its school funding formula, hiring Picus and Associates as consultants. The consultants released their recommendations for recalibration and presented them to the committees in preparation for the beginning of the 2006 legislative session.

According to the study, the estimated total cost for Wyoming’s recalibrated School Finance Block Grant Funding model is approximately $987 million, a 17% increase of $142 million over the previous budget for education. The recalibrated model recommended that state funding increase from $9,965 per pupil to $11,635 per pupil.

The report is based on the cost of providing a basic educational “basket” to every Wyoming student. One element in the basket is a set of academic standards, which require that all students be taught:

  • Mathematics
  • Reading/English/language arts
  • Science
  • History/social studies
  • Fine/performing arts
  • Physical education
  • Health and safety
  • Humanities
  • Career/vocational education
  • Foreign cultures and languages
  • Applied technology
  • Government and civics, including state and federal constitutions

Recommendations to address the challenges of educating at-risk students included: full day kindergarten, class sizes of 16 in K-5 and 21 in 6-12, 1-to-1 tutoring, extended-day programs, and structured academics-focused summer school. The report did not address early education or pre-school, an intervention widely discussed among school funding issues.

One of the study’s main innovations was shifting from a district-based to a school-based model. The report began with a prototype elementary, middle, and high school, with enrollments of 288, 315, and 630 students respectively. Wyoming, however, has a large number of small schools, so the study developed strategies for elementary schools of 192, 96, and 49; middle schools of 210 and 105; and high schools of 315. Furthermore, the consultants developed models for schools with alternative grade structures, such as K-6 or 7-12 schools.

Because the largest component of any school district budget is personnel costs, the report carefully examined average salaries for teachers, administrators, aides, and operational staff. The recalibrated model included five additional days of professional development for teachers and raised the average salary from $40,915 (2004-2005) to $41,975. This raised Wyoming’s national ranking in average teacher salaries from 38th to 32nd. Each salary figure included a benefit rate of 19.66%; an additional $7,235 was added to account for health care costs.

Last updated: April 2012

 

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