Turmoil in Wyoming: School Funding Back in Court

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This week, long-simmering frustrations over school funding in Wyoming are scheduled to spill over again in a courtroom showdown.

Despite pleas from the governor and other state officials, district officials are again challenging the state's school finance plan in court.

The state had asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to block the trial until after the legislature completes its next session, which begins in February and is expected to end in March. The court had not ruled on the request last week.

"We're going to trial over things that are going to change in February," said Ray Hunkins, the special assistant attorney general in charge of the state's case. "There are a number of loose ends that need to be tied up."

The loose ends come in the form of data. The state education department is working to provide the legislature with the latest data available from a cost-of-education study issued last March. The department has until Jan. 1 to report to the lawmakers so that they can adjust their new finance plan accordingly.

But the school districts are tired of waiting. "Our concern is that we want to make sure that we push this through to have an equitable system for our students and that it's put in place as quickly as possible," said Gene Carmody, the superintendent of Sweetwater District #2, one of the four districts that filed the initial Wyoming school finance lawsuit in 1992.

A Frustrating Turn

During a special session that ended in June, state lawmakers approved a reform plan, but they are not expected to fine-tune it until the budget session in February. The reform plan was the result of a 1995 order by the state's highest court to eliminate spending disparities among Wyoming's 49 school districts. ("It's Nearly High Noon for Wyo. Officials Facing Finance Deadline," June 11, 1997.)

The court had ruled that the old plan, which was based largely on the number of classrooms in a district rather than on enrollment, created unconstitutional differences in educational opportunities. This school year, while the legislature continues work on its new plan, the old system remains in place. But no sooner had the legislature closed out its special session than the four districts that originally sued the state over its funding system challenged the new plan, which bases funding on student enrollment. Several intermediate and small school districts have also joined the suit, as well as the Wyoming Education Association. The plaintiffs sued the state for failing to implement the new plan by the court's July 1, 1997, deadline. They also contend that the new plan would not provide enough additional state funding for schools.

The latest litigation wave has left both sides frustrated.

"I'm really disappointed in the suit," said Rep. Peg Shreve, a Republican and the co-chairwoman of the select committee on school finance, a 12-member group that is working with the House-Senate education committee on the reform plan. "I thought the lawyers would wait until after the budget session to see what we get done."

"We have to have exact numbers to know what we're getting," she said.

School officials see things differently, however. "Part of our frustration is that the time line to have all of the pieces in place stretched two to three years," said Mr. Carmody, the Sweetwater superintendent. The 3,500-student district is one of the four larger districts involved in the case.

But it seems no amount of litigation will speed the process.

The districts "are upset because we didn't have it all set up to go into effect in July 1997, but the state never had to have these things," Ms. Shreve said. She expects everything to be done by July of next year.

"We've been in a time crunch. The supreme court only gave us 18 months to get this together--that's an impossibility. We have to set up a lot of things," Ms. Shreve said.

Mr. Carmody countered: "We offered to work with legislators since day one. ... [It] seems we've been rebuffed." He added that the districts asked the legislature to consider funding inequalities as early as 1990.

"We're pressing forward with the lawsuit so that districts won't have to come back and go through what we've been dealing with for the last six years," Mr. Carmody said.

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