Oct. 26—CHEYENNE — The fiscal impact of the pandemic that hit society three years ago is still being felt by Wyoming K-12 school districts, where schools struggle to afford the increased costs of educational materials and retain teachers.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
School district leaders and state organizations such as the Wyoming Education Association on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pursue the recommended $68 million out-of-pocket cost adjustment. The ECA, which was built into the education block grant model to relieve school districts from the cost of inflation, was put forward by members of the Joint Appropriations Committee during its meeting that day.
The Joint Education Committee recommended a cumulative continuing ECA, and Senator Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, asked if the ECA would be a permanent part of education funding, including next year’s budget.
Matt Wilmarth, senior school finance analyst at the Office of Legislative Services, confirmed that ECAs will be a part of education funding until the next recalculation period, which will be in 2025.
Inflationary costs for educational materials and energy are based on national indices, Wilmarth said, and personnel costs are reflected in the salaries of workers equivalent to public education teachers in Wyoming.
“If national trends on (educational materials and energy costs) are going down, they will reflect the national trend,” Wilmarth said. “If comparable wages in Wyoming are increasing due to inflation, (personnel costs) will be reflected in that.”
ECAs, which are reviewed on an annual basis, fluctuate depending on national trends. The national cost index for energy was negative in 2021, which was reflected in the cumulative ECA for the 2022-23 school year, Wilmarth said.
This year’s ECA, as recommended throughout, is divided into four categories:
— Energy: 14.669%, or $7.4 million
– Educational materials: 21.852%, or $30.3 million
– Professional employees: 3.871%, or $25.2 million
– Non-professional workers: 4.106%, or $5.1 million
This estimate will be revised in two ways by the end of December.
The first will allocate resources to school districts based on recent school enrollment numbers, where the number of students will influence the allocation of resources to each district.
The second revision is a potentially minor change on two cost indices for materials and energy based on final data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“They won’t change dramatically, but they may fluctuate,” Wilmarth said.
Cost of educational materials has increased due to ‘Covid hangover’
Rep. Lloyd Larson, R-Lander, reported that about 22% of the ECA’s recommendation was for educational materials, which is about 20 percentage points more than the ECA’s recommendation in the 2019-20 school year.
Wilmarth said this was the result of a “Covid hangover” from increased costs during the pandemic, with educational materials still feeling the brunt of inflation.
Laramie County School District 1 has seen higher costs for custodial supplies, office and classroom furniture and paper, said Jed Ciccarelli, the district’s chief financial officer. The cost of snow melting and other cleaning supplies has increased 16% or more in the past two years, he said.
“We have seen the cost of purchasing things like paper increase by over 60%,” Ciccarelli said. “A standard student desk costs 27% more. A standard chair for a student costs 29% more.”
Non-tangible goods, such as contract services, are also more expensive. Services and programs provided by the school district, such as student-athlete programs and office administration, are “inspired by that ECA adjustment” to all educational content.
“I don’t think you’ll find a single school district in Wyoming that will tell you they haven’t felt the pinch of rising costs,” Ciccarelli said. “For my district alone our property insurance has increased by almost a million dollars in the last four years.”
WEA: High-quality teachers deserve the state’s investment
Tate Mullen, government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association, said the “largest gap in comparable salaries” his group has seen since they began tracking the data coincides with a substantial increase in exit rates.
Mullen said, “We know that student performance is directly related to having high-quality teachers in the classroom. These dollars help districts retain and attract those high-quality teachers.” “They are a necessity for our education system.”
Teachers were surveyed by Wyoming Teacher Apprenticeship, an initiative that strategizes how to boost teacher retention, based on what they need to best support them in their careers. According to documents provided by the Wyoming Department of Education, the proposed resources were one of “several broad recommendations.”
The WTA survey results also found that 1 in 5 teachers are likely to leave teaching in the next year, and 1 in 3 teachers said they are likely to leave teaching in the next two years.
Higher pay for teachers was the top priority, with 78% of survey respondents saying it was the number one priority. The second highest ranked priority was stronger administrative support, followed by additional behavioral supports for students, greater respect from students, and reduced high-stakes testing.
LCSD1 and other school districts in Wyoming have struggled to fill vacant positions, particularly in special education, along with physical therapists and school psychologists.
“We will continue to compete with the Front Range for teachers,” Ciccarelli said. “We’ve seen our neighbors add up to $5,000 on their (base salary) to be more competitive.”
Jerry Smith, business manager for Sheridan County School District 1, echoed that concern.
“Even we medium-sized districts can help attract and retain the best staff members,” Smith said.
Cheyenne resident Richard Garrett, whose daughter is set to graduate from the University of Wyoming College of Education in June, urged the committee to pursue the ECA recommendation.
“I selfishly want to keep him at state,” Garrett said. “I want to do everything possible to urge you to pass this bill.”
Hannah Shields is a state government reporter for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He can be reached at 307-633-3167 or [email protected]. You can follow him at X@happyfeet004.