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Oral Arguments Begin in Wyoming School-Finance Case

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Oral arguments got under way last week in a state court case challenging Wyoming's complex system of school funding.

The district-court case pits five large school districts--Cheyenne, Rock Springs, Evanston, Campbell, and Green River--against the state and 22 small rural districts.

The large districts and the Wyoming Education Association charge that the state's current funding system is unconstitutional, since it grants more money per student to smaller districts than to larger ones.

Wyoming's 49 districts currently enroll 96,000 students, of whom 38,000 are located in four districts.

The plaintiffs want to change the formula of classroom units, which are the basis of state distribution of school funds. Each year districts receive a set amount of money, this year $92,331, for each classroom unit. The number of units is assessed by dividing an assigned divisor into each district's enrollment.

The divisor rating is based on the size of the district. It can be as low as eight for small districts and as high as 23 for large districts, the plaintiffs point out, thus giving smaller districts a disproportionate share of state funds. The larger districts want their divisor rating lowered from 23 to 21.

In last week's testimony, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Lynn Simons recalled that the divisor system was created "out of the blue'' in 1983, with no regard to actual cost of education differences in small or large districts. The current state chief, Diana J. Ohman, noted that no studies have proved the effectiveness of the divisor system.

Circling the Wagons

The defendants endorse the current funding system as necessary to support the needs of rural schools with low enrollments and sparse populations.

But Jim Fotter, the president of the W.E.A., argued that the plaintiffs are simply trying to maintain the status quo. "It's the circle-your-wagons approach,'' he said.

The W.E.A. joined the case to expand the plaintiffs' argument from focusing on the divisor issue to include such broader questions as determining the cost-effectiveness of the current system, establishing a stable source of funding, and fully enacting a 1980 state supreme court ruling that ordered changes in the system of fund distribution, revenue collection, and taxpayer equity.

Thirteen years later, Mr. Fotter noted, the legislature has added new tax-collection formulas, in the form of district and county mill levies. But, he said, it has yet to balance tax redistribution or taxpayer equity.

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