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State Journal: Found money; Recharging required

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An independent review of Wyoming school finances has found $180 million in unreported district reserves that the state legislature was not even looking for.

The unexpected discovery was part of a report compiled by the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, an advocacy group.

The group conducted the research in response to education-funding woes during the 1992-93 school year. The legislature was widely criticized for borrowing highway and water funds as a one-time source for the education budget, and ignoring a projected $70 million deficit in the following school year.

The study, based on state education department statistics, found a steady increase in expenditures and reserves in districts throughout the 1980's. The legislature had no procedure for tracking local district revenues, the study indicates.

In addition to the hidden assets, the study argues that if districts had held their growth in spending to the inflation rate, they would have saved $370 million during the period studied, from 1981 to 1991.

Michael Walden-Newman, the executive vice president of the group, said he hopes the report spurs the legislature to improve its appropriations habits and to hold districts more accountable for reporting their finances.

"While the state's general revenues are being drained to support what is traditionally a local function, we don't know where those millions in district funds are or how they were spent,'' he said.

Renewed efforts to lengthen the school year in Montana are running into resistance in the legislature.

Lawmakers last year rejected a proposal to gradually increase the school year from 180 days to 220 days.

Backers are continuing to press the idea, but a recent hearing by a legislative subcommittee showed considerable skepticism remains, particularly in an era of tight budgets.

One potential obstacle to the plan is a new study by a legislative researcher showing that each additional day on the school calendar would cost nearly $3 million.

Despite proponents' arguments that a longer school year is necessary for U.S. students to be competitive internationally, members at the hearing also voiced doubts about the basic idea of requiring students to spend more time in class.

"Rest is essential to a productive workforce,'' observed Sen. Fred R. Van Valkenburg. "Vacation is essential in the education process to recharge the batteries of teachers and students.''
--S.K.G. & H.D.

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