CASPER — State officials did not file a federal waiver that would allow them to cut education funding while receiving federal stimulus money after regulatory changes nationally. But Wyoming “has a very compelling argument” to file for such a waiver next year.
As part of its massive stimulus package passed in the spring, U.S. Congress set aside more than $2 billion for states to individually dole out to educational entities. But as part of that, states must agree not to cut funding through fiscal years 2020 and 2021. States could, however, file a waiver with the federal Department of Education should they face a sudden drop in revenue.
In other words, states could receive the federal money and ask the federal government to still allow them to cut their individual education budgets should they feel their fiscal outlooks had taken a precipitous decline.
In May, Wyoming officials indicated that they were discussing filing for such a waiver in light of the plummeting revenues facing the state and the education system. But neither the state Education Department nor the governor’s office ultimately filed such a waiver. Michael Pearlman, the spokesman for Gov. Mark Gordon, said the federal government decided not to allow for waivers to be filed this year, though they will be accepted in 2021.
“Wyoming has received $4.7 million through this act,” Pearlman wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “If a waiver becomes necessary, Wyoming will apply when it becomes available in 2021.”
“The (U.S.) Department of Education may waive the ... requirement if there has been an abrupt, steep drop in financial resources available for State effort to support elementary, secondary and postsecondary education,” he said. “As you’re aware, Wyoming is facing incredibly large fiscal challenges and has a very compelling argument to use if necessary.”
While the delay until late 2021 may impede education funding cuts, school officials have said that the main piggy bank for school funding will hold solid for another year. Because of how schools are funded, their budget — which is roughly the same size as the rest of Wyoming’s government combined — is typically a year behind other state agencies when it comes to imminent funding shortfalls. So while the rest of the state’s agencies are facing an immediate crunch, schools’ pain will be delayed.
Still, the state’s education system is undergoing an extensive study right now that may lead to efforts to trim education funding. Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Democratic legislator from Laramie, told the Star-Tribune this week that she believes education funding will be a major point of contention at the upcoming legislative session.
Schools are projected to face a massive funding shortfall in the coming years as Wyoming’s revenue streams — centered largely around the extraction industries — have cratered in recent months, an economic devastation that’s only been worsened by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The shortfall facing schools could top $500 million, which is in addition to an already existing deficit of roughly $200 million.