Wyo. Begins To Consider Finance Intricacies

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A long-awaited report spelling out the cost of education in Wyoming may mean good news for the state's large school districts but a lobbying battle for smaller ones.

The study, part of the state's answer to a wide-ranging school finance decision by the state supreme court last year, was submitted to the Wyoming legislature last week. Prepared by the consulting firm Management Analysis and Planning LLC of San Francisco, the document attempts to make sense of how much the state spends on education.

It will now be a working document for lawmakers in their efforts to design a new finance system--one that complies with the court's requirement that all Wyoming students be given an equal educational opportunity.

"It's pretty close to the court's decision," said Sen. Tom D. Kinnison, a Republican and co-chairman of the joint appropriations committee.

"I'm pleased," agreed GOP Rep. Rick Tempest, another co-chairman. "It's what we're asking for."

Adopting the plan would cost the state, which now spends around $600 million a year on its schools, an estimated $51 million more. Fourteen of the state's 49 school districts would receive less money from the state than they do now.

A Detailed Formula

The plan would move Wyoming away from a funding system built around the number of classrooms in the state and instead base funding on school enrollments. To come up with a per-pupil funding level, the consultants recommend determining how much money would be spent on nearly two dozen items, including personnel, supplies, material, equipment, and special services. Adjustments would be made for student characteristics, such as limited English proficiency. School district conditions, including the presence of small schools, would also warrant adjustments.

Aid to districts under the proposed finance model would differ according to the number of students in elementary, middle, and high schools. The model supposes that, on average, an elementary school would have 288 students with 14 to 18 students for each teacher. At the high school level, schools would have approximately 600 students and a teacher for every 16 to 20 students.

The model can also be adjusted to accommodate year-to-year demographic changes, advances resulting from educational research, changes in teaching, and technology. It would also be able to accommodate changes in district boundaries, which are likely if smaller districts consolidate.

"We could have the districts share resources such as superintendents or administrators," Mr. Kinnison said. "It would be much more economical to deliver it in a larger setting."

The legislature will hold four subcommittee hearings next week to allow opinions on the study to be heard.

A special legislative session in June will go over the reform plan in finer detail. The new finance system is expected to be phased in over several years, officials said.

Under the consultants' plan, larger districts would come out ahead. Under the current aid formula, rural schools are given extra state aid.

"The legislature is not out to cripple the small school district," said Mr. Tempest. "The recommendations hit them pretty hard, but it wouldn't surprise me to see the legislature add money to help the small schools out."

Small Schools Spotlighted

Changes in the state's finance system are expected to make consolidation a more practical option for small schools.

The report acknowledges that design of the new finance system will prove difficult, and that controversies surrounding its enactment are likely to be intense. But the supreme court has forced lawmakers to make serious changes.

In November 1995, the court ordered the state to define the "education package" every student should expect, and the court asked the state to calculate its cost. "Supporting an opportunity for a complete, proper, quality education is the legislature's paramount priority," the high court said. ("Court Again Strikes Down Wyo. Finance System," Nov. 22, 1995.)

The court gave lawmakers until this July to come up with a solution. State officials said last week that the cost of the study throws their debate into sharp focus. And legislators are expecting that the lobbying from small schools will begin quickly.

"Before closing this session we had some discussion on school issues," Mr. Tempest said. "It quickly turned into urban against rural schools. Those representing small school districts are making it known how hard it will be to take a hit this big."

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