Trial in Wyoming could determine appropriate funding for education.

A trial spanning six weeks concerning Wyoming’s school funding formula is currently taking place in a Cheyenne courtroom.

The core issue revolves around whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional duty to finance education, which is intricate and multifaceted. An array of witnesses is expected to testify on various subjects, including significant maintenance projects, school meals, campus security, and staffing positions.

The potential outcome of the trial could influence the ways in which Wyoming allocates funds for teacher salaries, deferred maintenance, and other educational needs across its 48 school districts. With almost two years passed since the legal action was initiated, WyoFile presents a reiteration of Wyoming’s school funding structure and the specifics of the ongoing lawsuit.

Background of the Case

In August 2022, the Wyoming Education Association, a group representing 6,000 educators, filed a 71-page lawsuit. Eight school districts joined the lawsuit as intervenors to contest the state’s actions.

The lawsuit asserts that Wyoming has breached its constitutional obligation by inadequately funding public schools and withholding necessary funds, compromising educational quality, safety, and security. This situation has forced districts to seek independent solutions and redirect finances from critical educational endeavors, leading to systemic degradation, as claimed in the lawsuit.

As per Article 7 of the Wyoming Constitution, the Legislature is mandated to establish and maintain a comprehensive and consistent system of public education. Previous landmark court rulings have further clarified the state’s responsibilities in the ’80s and ’90s.

The more recent Campbell cases have set the stage for Wyoming’s present obligations in school funding. These cases culminated in 1995 when the Wyoming Supreme Court directed the state to determine the costs of delivering high-quality education, finance public schools, adjust funding for inflation biennially, and review the components of the funding model every five years to ensure adequacy. 

The court compelled the Legislature to prioritize education above all else, leading to a funding structure characterized by the “basket of goods” and “recalibration.” The former refers to the essential skills and subjects students must learn, while the latter involves the periodic review and adjustment of the funding model by the Legislature.

The Wyoming Education Association played a crucial role as an intervening party in those legal proceedings.

Contentions in the Ongoing Lawsuit

The 2022 complaint alleges that, in the years following the Campbell cases, the state has failed to fulfill its educational funding commitments. This failure is attributed to the absence of periodic adjustments for external costs and inadequate allocations to meet funding requirements, especially concerning salaries for teachers, administrators, and support staff.

The lawsuit notes a significant decline in Wyoming’s ability to attract high-quality educators due to the failure to adjust the funding model for inflation over time, resulting in a loss of competitive edge. Districts have also faced challenges in providing essential student support services, procuring necessary resources like textbooks and technology, reducing extracurricular opportunities, and in some cases, eliminating programs entirely.

Insufficient funding has not only impacted teachers but also led to deteriorating safety and security measures in schools, alongside the continued utilization of inadequate facilities with unmet maintenance needs, as highlighted in the lawsuit.

Furthermore, the suit alleges that the funding shortfall is not due to financial constraints but rather stems from a lack of political determination to adhere to the constitutional mandate of adequately funding schools.

The lawsuit also accuses Wyoming of engaging various consultants to conduct “recalibration” studies but discontinuing their services when their recommendations necessitated increased funding, as reported here.

The suit contends that the funding provided under the current model falls significantly below the recommendations of the Legislature’s consultants during recalibration studies, indicating an underestimation of educational costs. Intervening districts in the lawsuit include several counties such as Albany, Campbell, Carbon, Laramie, Lincoln, Sweetwater, and Uinta.

Current Expenditure Scenario

According to the Legislative Service Office, Wyoming’s state expenditure on education has risen from $443 million, equivalent to $4,372 per student in 1985, to $1.5 billion, amounting to $16,751 per student in 2022.

Factors contributing to this increase include a rising population of students requiring special education services, escalating technology demands, and inflationary pressures. Wyoming’s low population density and rural characteristics also contribute to its high per-pupil spending compared to national averages.

Legal Developments

In December 2022, the Laramie County District Court dismissed the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

In 2023, Wyoming appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court to intervene in determining the appropriate level of scrutiny for the case’s outcome. The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision to apply “strict scrutiny,” rejecting the state’s request for a lesser standard.

On May 1, Laramie County District Court Judge Peter Froelicher denied the state’s motion for a partial summary judgment, progressing the case to trial.

Commencement of the Six-Week Trial

The trial was inaugurated on Monday in the Laramie County District Court with opening statements and plaintiff testimonies. The initial days featured witnesses from the plaintiffs providing insights on district staffing vacancies, salary adjustments, criteria for major construction projects, and educational curricula. Testifiers included WEA President Grady Hutcherson, a veteran educator, alongside district personnel like superintendents and HR managers.

One of the sought remedies by the plaintiffs is retroactive relief for districts to receive the funding that should have been allocated to date.

The court is live-streaming the trial, accessible here.

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