Wyoming Legislature update
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
September 22, 2015
September 22, 2015:
Hello Sublette County, on September 2 and 3, I attended the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. Our committee continued to hear recommendations from the consultants, Picus and Odden, on the legislatively required update to the K12 school finance model. Wyoming spends over a billion dollars on K12 education per year. The state has a constitutional mandate to provide an equal and quality education to the children of Wyoming, and to help accomplish this we have one of the highest expenditures per student in the nation. We also heard testimony from various school districts around the state, which gives us a much needed Wyoming perspective. Our consultants are not from the intermountain area, and come with a big city perspective. However, they helped create our funding model, and have a long history developing K12 funding models. It is the Select Committee’s job to take a national view on education funding and blend it with Wyoming reality.
We heard testimony on fringe benefits, like health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement, and unemployment insurance. School districts are funded for health insurance based upon the state health insurance pool, but districts spend less on health insurance than they are funded. Local districts can often find better, less expensive insurance from private insurance carriers than the state pool would provide. The consultants’ recommendations for benefits nearly mirror Wyoming’s current policies, except they suggest raising the unemployment insurance rate to today’s levels. The consultants do not recommend raising the workers compensation rate, even though the rate last school year was higher than the model pays for. Districts make up the difference in funding by moving money within their block grant. Most of the K12 funding model is provided to local districts in a block grant, which allows districts the flexibility to tailor education to fit the needs of very different communities.
The consultants provided recommendations on staffing of core areas, including substitute teachers, supervisory aides, instructional aides, librarians, and library media technicians. The current funding for substitute teachers and the consultants’ recommendation is to provide districts $103/day in the block grant for each substitute. The number of substitutes accounted for in the model equal 5% of a district’s teachers, tutors, instructional facilitators, and coaches. The consultants suggest increasing the number of substitute work days from 8.75 per teacher to 10 days per teacher. I believe the $103 per day is too low a wage for a skilled professional, when it often cost me more than $150/day to hire skilled cowboys. Instructional and supervisory aides were another bone of contention between districts and our consultants, because districts hire far more aides than the model allows. They can do this because aides are funded in the block grant. Districts train some aides to work as tutors, and since tutors are paid a teacher’s salary districts can save money by hiring lower-paid aides. Teacher aides are an important part of K12 education in Wyoming. We need to recognize this, and support local control through the block grant funding model.
The Recalibration Committee asked the consultants to look at food service, school resource officers, and early childhood education as possible additions to the school funding model. The funding model has always assumed that food service was paid for by federal grants, and that the state had no need to subsidize meals for children. However, we found that districts utilized $9.8 million of their block grants on food service. We heard testimony that the meals the federal government is willing to pay for are not liked by students, or in fact by anyone.
Local districts expressed to the committee a great need for School Resource Officers (SROs) to protect students, and educate them about issues related to school violence. Several districts utilize block grant money to employ SROs, but the state funding model does not provide dollars for these safety personnel. SROs are expensive, up to $70,000 per officer. What price is the state willing to pay for a child’s safety? Is a child’s safety in school not a fundamental responsibility of government? Who should pay for that security, the state or local law enforcement?
Another big question revolves around early childhood education. We know that by age 5 a child’s brain is 85-90% developed. We know that early childhood development/education provides the biggest bang for our education buck. We know disadvantaged children benefit the greatest from early childhood programs. We know from our consultants, that a Pre-K program comprised of 4-year-old children would cost $107 million annually. But what role should the state play? What role should the local community play? What role should the parents have? Can we create an early childhood program that blends and respects all of these players, with local control, and still find money in a down economy? I hope we can.