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.
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 “Washakiemoment,” 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.