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EDITORIAL: In school funding debate, pledges and coalitions unhelpful

If figuring out how to pay for the education of Wyoming’s children is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, it’s been concerning to watch some lawmakers and school leaders painting that gorilla into a corner.

The state’s minerals industry has footed much of the bill for educating students for years, but the recent downturn in that sector of the economy has left lawmakers with a deficit that runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The mantra from lawmakers and state leaders as they headed to the Legislature last winter was that, “We can’t cut our way out of this one.” They generally said a mix of both budget cuts and additional revenue (a politically correct way of saying “new or increased taxes”) would be needed to solve the crisis.

We think that’s the most prudent approach, but it’s been frustrating to see how many people seem to think it must be one or the other.

In recent months, a coalition of school districts — led by Campbell County School District No. 1 in Gillette — has been gearing up for a potential legal fight. Their general thought appears to be that, if legislators try to cut education funding further, they’ll challenge that decision in Wyoming’s court system.

Campbell County School District No. 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown told Wyoming Public Radio in March that his district has been considering legal action against the state for four years.

“We are getting to this point where we don’t feel like we have reliable and stable funding for education and so it’s going to start deteriorating,” Brown told the radio station.

Gillette officials have been seeking out districts to partner with them in a coalition and nearly a dozen have joined the cause, the Greybull Standard reported.

Earlier this month, the Big Horn School District No. 3 Board of Trustees in Greybull deadlocked, 3-3, over whether to saddle up with the coalition.

The Standard reported that superintendent Barry Bryant and part of the board had concerns about the budget-cutting path that lawmakers appear to be heading toward.

But other members of the board didn’t like the idea.

“The consequences are being felt across the state — and we are part of the team of the state of Wyoming,” said trustee Joe Sylvester. “To me, [joining the coalition] seems like the spoiled child saying, ‘No, no, no,’ and kicking and screaming. Everyone has to take a cut.”

Another Greybull trustee, Mike Wirtzberger, said he believed there were other things that school leaders could do about potential budget cuts.

We think there’s a lot of truth in those observations and hope the Park County School District No. 1 trustees decline to join the coalition at this time. Effectively threatening lawmakers that you’ll sue them if they touch your pot of money just doesn’t feel right amid a truly difficult debate about how government services should be funded in Wyoming.

The discussion is one that’s dragged on for years without any lasting resolution: What can and should Wyoming do to get off its turbulent boom and bust cycle and dependency on fossil fuels?

It seems fairly clear that, while part of the solution means cutting back on spending, it should also mean reforming the state’s tax structure to expand the base. Yes, that would mean more taxes on individuals and non-minerals industry businesses. And yes, we know that’s one tough sell. That showed during the 2017 legislative session, as the “we can’t cut our way out of this” lawmakers mostly opted for cuts while agreeing to talk about possible tax increases before the 2018 session.

There’s still plenty of reluctance.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, told the Joint Revenue Committee and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration in June that he hoped “as you move forward and do your work that [tax increases] would be the last option.”

“I think the silent majority agrees with me,” Bebout told the online publication WyoFile.

By apparently being willing to consider new taxes as a last resort, the Senate leader seems more open to the idea than some of his colleagues, who’ve signed the Wyoming Liberty Group’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and promised not to pass any tax increases.

The thinking goes that schools and all other government entities should live within their means. To an extent, we agree. We believe Wyoming’s school districts can handle further cuts without hurting students.

However, pledging to refuse to consider any kind of tax increase is short-sighted. Under the current tax structure, insisting that schools “live within their means” effectively amounts to arguing that our children’s education and the quality of their school buildings should depend on what the marketplace or the day’s presidential administration thinks about coal, oil and natural gas.

When we talk about funding for education, we’re really talking about no less than the future of this state. And, at least in the case of the Powell school district, we’re talking about schools that are serving their students well.

As the discussion continues, we hope lawmakers and school leaders are willing to engage in some give-and-take instead of retreating to their respective corners — where they might find themselves face-to-face with an untamed gorilla.

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