State House Candidate Responses: How should the legislature address school funding?

As part of our goal here at County 17 of informing voters for this year’s elections, in the lead-up to the primaries, we sent out unique questions for candidates in state, county, and city elections, to let you better know your candidates.

To avoid overwhelming people with information, we skipped races that were uncontested. After the primaries, challengers to the incumbent stepped forward in House districts 31 and 32. This week we’ll be posting responses from the Republican incumbents and their independent challengers.

We also reached out to the candidates in District 40, but we did not receive responses from either candidate.

Previous answers can be found here:

What’s your background? Do you have the time to serve?

What’s your position on mineral taxes?

How do you propose to fund school construction?

The general election is Nov. 6.

Wyoming’s education system has major funding issues. How do you think the legislature should go about fixing the problem? Please provide meaningful answers. If you do believe cuts are needed, please specifically identify some areas you would focus on or some changes you would like to see made to the existing funding formula. These answers should not focus on capital construction, as that has been covered in a previous question, and should focus on operating. (limit 750 words)

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Scott Clem (Republican-District 31)

One of the most important duties of the legislature is providing an effective and excellent public education at every school for every student. Without a doubt, we can’t be a great state without great schools.

I didn’t vote for last year’s cuts. In part, because of the legislative cuts made the previous year on top of our district’s reduced ADM, and also in part because these cuts were made to the most vulnerable in special education. I understand the need to balance our expenditures with our income. It just doesn’t make sense to me that we would target our most vulnerable student population first. I don’t agree with that, and I couldn’t vote for that.

Both the legislature and local school boards make funding decisions. The legislature sends a block grant of money to local districts based on a complicated state model. The local school board then makes all decisions on how to spend that block grant. This includes decisions about administrators, teachers, personnel, salaries, insurance carriers, supplies, technology, activities, classes, curriculum, transportation, sports, band, etc.

According to state data, Campbell County had an average daily membership (ADM) of 8,577 students and an annual budget of $137,792,053 (not including reserves–about $20.1 million), averaging $16,065 per student last school year. Our district employed 1,606 employees: 641 being teachers and 51 being administrators for our district’s 23 schools. Last year’s cuts reduced our district’s budget to $136,612,000. That said, the 2018/2019 block grant guarantee from the state is still projected to grow to $138,120,000 due to gov’t creep (inflation, rising costs, health insurance, etc.).

We are projected to be several hundreds of millions short state-wide in future years. The good news is that we have a large rainy day fund ($1.6 billion) to serve as a buffer. I don’t believe draconian cuts or massive tax hikes are needed now. However, some action, examination and planning is needed. I believe we need to do the following immediately:

  1. Slow the growth of rising costs and gov’t creep. This includes addressing the rising costs of health insurance, something we are actively pursuing on the Labor/Health committee which I’m on. Wyoming has the 2nd highest health insurance costs in the US. These costs not only inhibit job growth and creation, it also affects the state’s budget in a huge way. The state provides funding for health insurance for about 31,000 employees, including school district employees. Lowering the cost of the health insurance will lower state & local government costs, as well as lower school district and private industry costs. We can do this through a 1332 waiver to the affordable care act. It allows the state to be innovative in how to handle costs in the individual market without passing costs onto consumers. Eight states, including Alaska, have applied for such waivers. In Alaska’s case, they were able to bring down costs by 25%. Even better, the states who have done this also see a decrease in insurance prices in the private market. It’s a win-win.
  2. Open the books and see if we’re being as efficient as possible with taxpayer dollars. Last year, an organization called Open the Books uncovered $10 million in credit card expenses in Natrona County’s school district. About $1.2 million alone was spent on travel and entertainment, and “household” items totaled $1.37 million. This is not good. The charges were downright embarrassing for our state and raises the question of efficient spending, and that is just one county.
  3. Let’s look at diverting savings to pay for education expenses now. The Common Schools Permanent Land Fund account has $3.9 billion. It’s an inviolate account, meaning we can only spend investment earnings made off the corpus. Every biennium we deposit $200 million into that account. Instead of saving this $200 million, we could use it for our funding needs now. Last year I co-sponsored Rep. Tim Hallinan’s bill that would have diverted these savings to useful revenue for a period of 6 years. This is much more preferable than tax increases.
  4. Finally, any potential cuts to the funding model should not be made if they jeopardize classroom expenditures or educational quality. There are at least two areas I think we could look at that would not affect the classroom. The first is reducing administrator expenses, and the second is reducing professional development days from 10 to 7.

I’m committed to making learning more efficient, effective, and accountable.

 

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David Hardesty (Independent-District 31)

I do believe there can be some cuts.  Upper administration can be limited to one Superintendent per county; school district consolidation has been a topic of discussion.  There will be some loss of local control for those communities. And although I see great value in professional days teachers get, currently at 10 per year, used to collaborate, train and plan, I’m a candidate that can compromise and I could see some reductions happening there.

We need to find a way to bring in “new money”.  Simply shifting money from one fund to another just places more stress on other agencies.  If a candidate doesn’t mention new revenue then I believe they stand for deep cuts and I’ve seen and heard proposals to cut between $200 and $300 Million more in the following years, statewide.  I feel this would devastate a K-12 education system that truly binds and builds our communities in Wyoming. A cut of this magnitude would translate to programs being eliminated, not reduced. What would our community look like without Friday Night Lights Football games?  Mid-winter basketball games? How will students in Band, Speech, and Debate find additional successes outside the classroom?  When will a struggling reader have an extra ear to listen to them read?  Who will a student in crisis turn to if counselor positions are reduced?  Why do some want to reduce opportunities for our kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews so much?  The “where” will the money come from is why I’m asking for your vote.  As your representative, I will truly explore all possibilities and proposals with an open mind.

 

Tim Hallinan (Republican-District 32)

In A December 2016 report of the Joint Education Committee they developed a list of possible reductions in the School Foundation Program Account. I  would avoid reductions in education quality and teaching in the classrooms. With that in mind it is clearly possible to reduce spending by $25 million a year or $50 million per biennium. It can be done in the following manner using the estimates of saving specifically included in their report.

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(1)  School district consolidation into 23 countywide school districts.

Saves $7.5 Million

(2)  Reduction of central office administration salaries by 10%..

Saves $3.4 Million

(3) Reduction of professional development days from 10 to 7 days. The number of           days was 5 until 2006-2007.

Saves $13 Million

The amount saved by these 3 simple changes, which would not affect the education or teaching in the classroom, would total $23.9 million annually and $47.8 million per biennium. Relative to the current School Foundation Program expense of approximately $1.5 billion this would only be a cut of 3.2%  but in dollar terms it would be a substantial savings.

 

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Chad Trebby (Independent-District 32)

Health and Safety, Education and Infrastructure are the three key governmental responsibilities.  When we start facing limited funding resources it starts becoming a matter of prioritization and funding has to be allocated to the services with the highest priority.  In the case of education, our constitution has provided a quality education as a fundamental right to those in our state.  This right has been upheld in the courts and it is the responsibility of the legislature to properly fund the education system.  Because of the importance placed on education we know it has to be one of the top priorities of the legislature when it comes to allocations. To provide a household example, the top priorities in most homes are that the mortgage and utilities are being paid.  If cuts have to be made they are likely coming from dinning out or the cable TV bill.  This is because a roof over your head and heat to keep you warm are clearly more important than other items. You don’t get the opportunity with a household budget to say that you are cutting from the mortgage payment and utility bill to help cover the family vacation.  Likewise, it will be critical for the legislature to prioritize funding education.  When evaluating where cuts should come from I think it is time we take a hard look at the amount of funding we are investing into “rainy day” investments and consider seeking education funding from a reduction in our investments.

Another area that comes up in discussion about education finances is the funding model that is used to allocate funds.  Through my eyes, the current funding model is an equitable method of distributing the education funding to the districts.  The model provides each district with an equitable share of the funding and allows the district the discretion on how to most efficiently use those resource.  If there are concerns with the efficiency or effectiveness of any given district, that is an issue that should be handled at a local level with the school board.   A part of the model that has been neglected for years has been the external cost adjustment factor.  This adjusts the allocations for inflation, and can go up or down for any given district from year to year.  This factor is critical in allowing the districts to maintain their purchasing power if the costs of goods go up, and save the state funding if they go down.

There have been discussions that consolidating districts across the state would save the taxpayers money by eliminating administrative positions.  I don’t believe that this is the answer to the problem.  First off, it removes the local control in determining how to best serve the needs of their students.  Control should remain as close to the students as possible.  Secondly, it does not put as large of a dent in the funding as it may seem at first glance.  Reducing the number of districts only increases the size of the new consolidated districts.  What cost may be saved by cutting a few positions is almost lost again by having to find and retain more qualified staff to manage the increased size.  To me the little cost saving this provides combined with the loss of local control does not make it a viable option for cost savings.