Wyo. Schools See the Upside of Fuel Prices

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Rising natural-gas and oil prices have left energy-rich Wyoming in a financial position that state officials usually can only dream of— a $1.8 billion surplus projected for this year, and barely enough ways to spend the money in the sparsely populated state.

Education has received much of the bounty. The state has set aside just over $1 billion to pay for K-12 education for fiscal 2007, up about 24 percent from the $841 million projected to be spent in the current fiscal year. The state, which is on a biennial budget cycle, has a total budget of $7.6 billion for two years.

“If I were choosing to be anywhere in education, Wyoming would be the place to be,” said Jim McBride, the state superintendent of public instruction.

For example, the high school class of 2006 will be the first group that has the opportunity to apply for a scholarship program open to all qualifying students, regardless of need.

And the state plans to eventually hire more than 400 “instructional facilitators” for each school to coach teachers in ways of getting the most from their students. Dollars will also be doled out to districts for full-day kindergarten, summer school, and extended-day programs.

There’s more. Teachers with certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will see $4,000 bonuses this year, and some legislators want to extend the incentive in future years. School districts are increasing starting salaries for teachers as well.

“There’s a lot of smiling around here,” said Monty L. Wardell, the president of the Wyoming School Boards Association and a school board member in the 700-student Big Horn County District #2. The starting salary in his district will rise by more than a third—from $26,000 to $35,000—for the next fiscal year.

‘OPEC of the United States’

Even the lawmakers charged with spending the wealth express awe at just how much Wyoming has been able to do in a relatively short time. They even ended the sales tax on food this session.

All told, the state estimates it will spend about $12,400 per pupil. Wyoming has about 83,700 public school students.

“The last four years have been nothing short of amazing for education in Wyoming,” said Rep. Jeff Wasserburger, the chairman of the state House committee on education and the assistant principal of the 843-student Twin Spruce Junior High School in Gillette, Wyo.

Referring to the oil-wealthy nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Mr. Wasserburger, a Republican, said that “Wyoming has become the OPEC of the United States.”

The state benefits from rising energy prices because it taxes energy companies based on the valuation of the commodities they produce, such as natural gas, coal, and oil. The state also receives part of the royalties energy producers pay to work on federal lands.

One program that lawmakers and school leaders often point to with pride is the Stanley K. Hathaway Scholarships initiative, which provides up to full funding for qualified high school seniors who attend the University of Wyoming or a state community college, less a $2,000-a-year family contribution. The program, named after a former governor, is financed by a $400 million trust fund from energy revenues.

Kevin L. Mitchell, the president of the Wyoming Association of School Superintendents, likes to highlight the instructional-facilitators program, as well as the increased aid for summer school and extended-day programs included in the new budget. Some of the money can be used for enrichment and acceleration, in addition to remediation, said Mr. Mitchell, the superintendent of the Big Horn County School District #1, which has 680 students and serves five small communities.

The budget “is all driven by attaining successful student education,” he said.

Court Influence

It was also driven, in part, by litigation. The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that the state was not adequately funding education. The outcome of that case led the state to adopt a new finance model for the next fiscal year, which is one of the reasons education funding has seen such marked increases, said Gary L. McDowell, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“The ongoing litigation has played a key role in moving education forward,” he said. Without it, he doesn’t believe the state would have moved so quickly, nor paid for the same priority areas.

Mr. McBride, a Republican who was appointed to fill an unexpired term as state schools superintendent last August and plans to run for the post this fall, said work remains to be done on strengthening Wyoming’s high school curriculum and aligning it with the University of Wyoming’s entrance requirements. He would also like to work on reducing the high school dropout rate, such as by raising the compulsory-attendance age from 16 to 18.

Vol. 25, Issue 37, Page 21

Published in Print: May 17, 2006, as Wyo. Schools See the Upside Of Fuel Prices
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