CHEYENNE – Lawmakers criticized some of the proposals of their state-hired school consultants Monday, the day before legislators will vote on the recommendations and possibly take a step toward reshaping Wyoming’s education system.
The meeting was the penultimate gathering of lawmakers, consultants and educators after a nine-month review process known as recalibration, which started with lingering threats of lawsuits and now may end with no new model for funding education. Lawmakers have said they don’t know if the committee overseeing the process will recommend a new model.
Sen. Hank Coe, a Cody Republican, told the Star-Tribune recently that he didn’t think the proposal had the votes on the Senate side of the committee to move forward. He also said that he was disappointed in the product.
“I don’t think so,” Boyd Brown, the superintendent of Campbell County School District, said of the chances that lawmakers approved a new model Tuesday.
When lawmakers vote Tuesday, it will be the culmination of a process that was triggered three years early and spanned nine months. It sought to find efficiencies in an education system that was facing a funding hole and that lawmakers said was not successful enough.
Instead, Denver-based consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates found that Wyoming was largely equitable. The state’s school funding system “is generally comparable to recommendations in other adequacy studies nationally.”
The apparent imminent demise of the proposal, predicted by another superintendent in the halls of Cheyenne’s Jonah Center on Monday, likely has to do with its price tag. The model – crafted by the consultants since the summer – is at least $70 million more expensive than the model the state now uses to fund schools. That number could rise to $90 million, depending on other economic variables.
While $70 million may seem like a blip in a statewide school budget that is nearly $1.5 billion, it matters a great deal to lawmakers trying to dig the state out of a hole. Wyoming is working to overcome an education funding shortfall that prompted recalibration in the first place. There was hope the process would find efficiencies. But those hopes were dashed earlier this month when the consultants’ report was released, and any lingering embers were stamped out after a school finance expert described just how expensive the consultants’ proposal would be.
The consultants said that one of the major drivers of the cost of the state’s funding system was its class sizes. The idea of increasing the number of students in Wyoming classrooms is part of the consultants’ proposal and has drawn criticism from some lawmakers. It did so again Monday. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, who has been a vocal opponent of size increases in the past, suggested the bump proposed by the consultants was arbitrary.
“You know, I looked at the data that you provided us,” the Laramie Democrat said. “Even now with the 18-to-1, I don’t understand how you concluded what you concluded based on the evidence you had. When I looked at it, 18-to-1 doesn’t seem better to 17-to-1 if I were just looking at the data with no policy implications.”
That thought was echoed by Coe and Speaker Steve Harshman.
“It just doesn’t work,” Harshman, a Casper Republican, said. “The way we’ve done it, we’ve had the results, as well. You look at our fourth-grade reading (national) scores. We’re clearly the best in the west.”
Rep. Cathy Connolly asked why the consultants chose to “ignore” what educators across the state asked for: the same, if not more, resources currently available.
“That’s a major departure of what your company promised to do,” she said.
Justin Silverstein, a consultant who presented to lawmakers Monday, defended the firm and said the recommendations were in line with what the consultants heard. He did acknowledge that the consultants could’ve informed educators better that larger class sizes would’ve meant more resources.
“Overall, we’re very comfortable that we listened to that voice,” he said.
The criticism wasn’t localized to class-size proposals. Two members of the public criticized the online surveys available to people around the state. Coe – who has been hawkish in the past on school cuts – took aim at the other major piece of the consultants’ report: increasing teacher salaries.
He read parts of the consultants’ report back to them, reciting pieces that said teachers’ departures from districts were not influenced by salaries.
“So given those statements, explain the methodology or statistical basis for your recommendation to raise model salary rates,” he said.
Mark Fermanich said the consultants were looking at what the trends are but hadn’t seen “hard evidence yet” that higher salaries helped recruit and retain teachers.
The consultants were also asked about whether they’d studied administrative costs – a favorite of some legislators – and transportation costs. The consultants replied that they hadn’t.