Balow warns K-12 funding could still collapse

CHEYENNE — During the final days of the 2021 legislative session, Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow expressed both praise for an imminent K-12 school funding deal and concern for the long-term future of the state’s school funding model.

“With the fall of coal and the political attack on domestic oil and gas production, our mineral revenue- dependent education system is seriously just several biennia away from collapse,” Balow said Friday afternoon. She was attending the first in-person monthly luncheon of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

“It’s pretty scary,” she continued, “and our Legislature recognized that.”

Balow, one of the top-five elected Republican officials in the state, was referring to the precarious school funding situation in Wyoming, which funds K-12 education at the highest level per pupil in the Mountain West and one of the highest levels in the country. The state has been able to spend that kind of money because, as a top producer of mineral wealth, it has relied heavily on federal royalties to put toward education.

But as coal production has dramatically declined over the past several years, and oil and gas markets continue to show volatile trends, lawmakers have made clear another solution must be reached to meet the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably fund schools for all children.

The state is facing a $300 million shortfall to K-12 funding, and late last year, legislators were talking about making as much as $100 million in cuts.

But it did not come to that this year. Legislators have worked out a plan to disburse about $270 million from federal pandemic relief money directly to school districts, thereby avoiding the severity of the structural deficit for now.

At the same time Balow – who has lambasted President Joe Biden’s temporary ban on new federal oil and gas leases as an additional hit to Wyoming education – was speaking at Little America Hotel and Resort, the Legislature, just a few miles up the road in the state Capitol, was hammering out the final details of a much-talked-about bill designed to make cuts to the state’s school foundation formula.

As of late Friday afternoon, the Senate had passed House Bill 173, which, if signed into law, will cut about 3% from the formula before returning it to the House. The lower chamber will decide next week whether to concur the vote or negotiate further.

“I’m really, really grateful for the progress our Legislature made this year, and maybe it’s time to just take a small sigh of relief, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Balow said. “If there’s one lesson to take away from the complexity of the decisions that were made this session around school funding, it’s that it’s never easy, and there is no silver bullet.”

Additionally, Balow mentioned a failed attempt by legislators to redefine the structure for funding school capital construction, which, in the past, has been funded at the state level using coal lease bonus money.

Although the state has spent more than $2 billion in federal coal lease bonus money over the past two decades to build and improve hundreds of school buildings, Senate Joint Resolution 4, which died in committee, would have allowed local districts an avenue for raising funds on the local level, in addition to receiving money from the state.

“I anticipate that we’ll continue to have that discussion, and it will be an important discussion for the business community to be a part of,” Balow told Chamber members. “I know I’ve had talks with many of you about new school construction (being) an anchor location in a community where there may be growth and business that sprouts up around it.”