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Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Wyo. Finance Case Nearing Final Decision

Wyo. Finance Case Nearing Final Decision

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A judge in Wyoming has ruled that the state's funding formula for major school construction and maintenance projects is unconstitutional because it favors wealthy school districts. But he upheld the state's cost-based system for funding school operations as constitutional.

First District Judge Nicholas Kalokathis examined capital projects and school operations during a trial that ended last month of a broader school finance lawsuit brought by six local districts and the Wyoming Education Association.

Judge Kalokathis is expected to issue a final decision on the overall school funding system by Feb. 1. Whichever way he rules, the case will likely be appealed.

"Regardless of who wins or loses here, the case will go the [Wyoming] Supreme Court for a definitive and final result," said Ray Hunkins, the lead attorney for the state.

Consolidations an Option

Wyoming schools have not stopped battling over finance since the state supreme court ruled in 1995 that the old system was unconstitutional. In 1997, the legislature created a new funding model, based on the cost of a school's day-to-day operations, that some districts say is still producing inequities. That legislation prompted the legal challenge from the six districts and the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

"The legislature has not followed the cost-based model" that it created in 1997, said Ford Bussart, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "It has departed in the level of funding that the model requires."

The state, meanwhile, contends that it has complied with the mandates of the 1995 Supreme Court ruling, said Mary Kay Hill, a consultant to the Wyoming department of education.

In his Dec. 14 ruling, Judge Kalokathis agreed with the plaintiffs' contention that the funding formula for construction and maintenance is unconstitutional because it is based on the wealth of individual school districts.

The judge asked lawyers on both sides to provide arguments by Jan. 14 on whether the issue of school district consolidations should be considered in his final ruling. Consolidations are seen by some as a way to help the state cut administrative costs and distribute funds more equitably.

Irene Devin, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, expects the subject of school finance to see little action when the legislative session begins in February. Before the legislature makes a move, "we need to have the Supreme Court speak on the issues," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 20

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