Lawmakers face pressing education issues

by nathan oster

When Wyoming lawmakers convene in Cheyenne next month for the start of their budget session, they will find waiting for them several pieces of legislation that have the potential to greatly impact school districts around the state.

Rep. Elaine Harvey, who represents House District 26, told a group of school officials from Greybull and Basin last week that there is great uncertainty over a Joint Education Committee proposal to change the cost adjustment formula for calculating the wages of school employees.

Currently, districts are able to use either the Wyoming Cost of Living Index (WCLI) or the Hedonic Index to calculate funding for employee salaries, which allows them to choose the one that most benefits their district.

The proposal will require administrators to use only the Hedonic model, which favors bigger cities and is unfavorable to rural communities.  Under the proposal, 31 of the state’s 48 districts, including all four in Big Horn County, would see substantial cuts in what they can afford to pay teachers and other staff.

The four districts in Big Horn County would take a hit of about $1 million in total, with District 1 (Rocky Mountain/Burlington) in line to lose $322,492, District 2 (Lovell) $274,574, District 3 (Greybull) $122,174 and District 4 (Basin) $103,802.

Harvey said she opposes the change and is “shocked the education committee is even entertaining the idea.

“I believe if we continue down that road, we will end up in court,” she said. “I can’t support using the Hedonic index.  The Wyoming Cost of Living Index is a much better index for us to be using.”

Gary Meredith, superintendent of the Greybull school district, asked whether support for the change may be waning among legislators, pointing out that he has heard “very little in the press about it” since news of the plan broke.

Harvey cautioned Meredith and others about believing that.

“There is a group (in the Legislature) that feels like our schools are getting too much money,” she said, adding that members of that group, most of whom are relatively new to Cheyenne, may eventually find it tough to get re-elected this November.

“There are too many of us with a memory of the court case, which happened right before I took office,” she said. “We remember the buzzwords — and Hedonic was one of them.  I think it will take some of us standing at the microphone to remind (others) about the sanctions and where that took us.”

Officials from both districts asked Harvey what could be done to ensure that lawmakers keep the status quo and not switch to the Hedonic index.

She said she believes the Hedonic index is “a fight worth fighting,” but emphasized that school officials should tread lightly. “Twist the arm, don’t break it,” is how she put it, adding that consolidation of school districts still lies close beneath the surface.

“We had a group of bullies one year who wanted to push consolidation, and for (24) districts in the state, it would have been the end. The message was, ‘We’re going to consolidate, we’re going to save money.’”

Harvey said some of the “old guard” in Cheyenne still feels that way.  “This may end up stimulating the discussion about whether there needs to be consolidation,” she said. “I’m willing to vote how my constituents tell me to vote.  When you tell me you want to consolidate, I will push for it. So far, that’s not what I’ve heard. That’s not what people want.”


Other issues

The session is scheduled to begin on Feb. 13.  Harvey said she expects redistricting to dominate the session.

She said she hopes the Big Horn Basin will retain its nine total representatives. “When we stand together on an issue, we can compete with Casper, Cheyenne, and Gillette,” she said. “Very similar to how the Sheridan and Johnson county contingency, also with nine, is able to speak for their interests.”

Harvey said redistricting discussion will start in the House of Representatives.  That’s because each Senate district is comprised of two House districts.  So once House district lines are tweaked and drawn, the Senate districts will fall into place.

“It’s been ugly so far,” she said. “I don’t see a happy situation.”

Harvey said the agricultural industry is going to be “under-represented” because most of the population growth has occurred in areas of the state where the minerals industry is exploding.

School districts are also closely monitoring proposed legislation that would hold teachers and administrators more accountable for how well students perform in school, including on the Proficiency Assessment for Wyoming Students (PAWS).

Harvey said many legislators “don’t feel like we’re getting enough bang for the buck,” but that she herself is “not ready to buy into all of the accountability pieces.

“I get concerned when money is tied so strongly to that,” she said. “Teaching is one of the hardest professions to link performance with outcomes.  Teachers aren’t the only component.”

Harvey also fielded questions about the changing of the guard within the School Facilities Commission and also about the high amount of staffing turnover in the Department of Education.  Among the people who have left office since Cindy Hill took over the post is Roger Clark, who formerly served as Greybull’s superintendent of schools. Harvey said she too is concerned about the turnover in the Department of Education.

In Greybull, school and town officials have been working together to build a new swimming pool — or at the very least, to put the issue of whether to proceed on the general election ballot this fall.

Harvey said some obstacles would first need to be overcome.

The Greybull district is allowed to use only 10 percent of its major maintenance dollars from the state on “enhancements” like the swimming pool. And in Greybull’s case, she said, “You’ won’t have the full 10 percent because you have excess square footage elsewhere.”

Another challenge deals with funding for the operation and maintenance of pools moving forward.

“If you are going to use a pool as part of the school inventory, they are now requiring that you put to paper what the life of the pool is expected to be, 20 years, and how you are going to fund that maintenance for 20 years,” Harvey said. “You need to have a slush fund already set up, or have a funding stream of some kind, with agreements and signatures in place.

“If you want to use county consensus money, for example, you would need the signatures of county commissioners. Whatever the funding stream is, it will have to be for the life of the pool.”