RIVERTON — A structural deficit in Wyoming’s K-12 school system will require a $222 million transfer from savings in the coming biennium, forecasters have informed the Joint Appropriations Committee.
“That is what is supporting the school foundation program going forward,” said Don Richards, cochairman of Wyoming’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, “a transfer from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.”
The solution is not permanent: Richards said the LSRA is losing money, with its balance falling from more than $1.5 billion in the 2019-2020 biennium to a projected $1.22 billion for 2021-2022.
By 2023-2024 he said the fund balance could be as low as $630 million.
“That’s primarily (due to) the automatic transfers to the school foundation program?” JAC cochair and Wyoming Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, asked.
“It is,” Richards said.
In general, Richards said, the “K-12 enterprise is running about $200 million in expenditures per year more than revenue.”
As a result, he said, the situation could be “pretty significantly bad” by the middle of the decade, when, without factoring in any anticipated capital gains, Richards said the state will have “exhausted all of our reserve accounts.”
In a telephone interview with The Ranger, Bebout said he isn’t very optimistic about the state’s ability to stem the rise K-12 spending levels, which are protected by the Wyoming Supreme Court. But he said he would like to “take a look” at the K-12 funding model to see whether a “more consistent” educational funding system might be possible in the state.
He referred to testimony from one community college president who was struggling to recruit professors due to the pay gap that exists between K-12 and postsecondary instructors in the state.
“There has to be a compromise … so you don’t have that going on,” Bebout said, though he noted that Wyoming should “be proud of what we pay our teachers.
“I’m not so sure you have to pay teachers less – it’s all the other money that goes into the funding model.”
Bebout also was skeptical about the potential for making cuts to the state budget during the legislative session that begins Feb. 10.
During this month’s JAC meeting, Richards told the legislators that they have about $12 million left over to spend or save after all other budget recommendations are taken into consideration.
“So you’re essentially right at balanced, right?” he said. “Just barely. On a $3 billion budget we’re talking about a fraction of that.”
Bebout used the word “flat” to describe the budget, and on the telephone later he predicted that the Legislature wouldn’t do much to address the situation.
“It’s not going to be any surprise where we’re going to end up,” he said. “We’re not going to make any tough decisions. We’re going to kick the can and spend our savings.”