Skip to main content

School funding sleuths

News Letter Journal - Staff Photo - Create Article
Mary Stroka, NLJ Reporter

State, local ed officials discuss convolutions of school funding model

The Wyoming school funding model, WDE 100, “is extremely complicated,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder told Weston County School District No. 1’s superintendent and board members at a meeting on May 6. The meeting was held in response to an adjustment in the district’s state funding that cost local schools nearly $200,000.

“Corrections are made all the time, based either on district or state model adjustments,” she said, noting that school district funding is “fairly finalized” by March and final numbers are always certified in March, but state law allows changes even after that.

According to the state schools chief, the Department of Education’s central administrative office first communicated the $187,583.99 funding model issue of small school adjustments in September 2023. The state corrected the adjustment that month and notified all the state’s school districts, she said, but internal WDE communications seem to indicate there was a different reason for the disparity than what district officials were told.

In a March 19 letter to Angela Holliday, the school district’s business manager, Leslie Zimmerschied, the state’s school foundation program supervisor, said that the school district’s fiscal year 2024 guarantee decreased by $187,583.99, following a correction in “small school district teacher FTE.” Zimmerschied said in a March 21 email to Degenfelder that while the data correction was labeled that way, “it was really a problem with my coding for the formula that generated the FTE.”

“It has nothing to do with the number of students enrolled in the district, or the Small School District status,” Zimmerschied said in her email.

The amount would be adjusted through the district’s entitlement payments and noted in the WDE 100 certification memo, the March 19 letter said.

Trent Carroll, the education department’s chief operations officer, said that he sees the $187,583 adjustment as an incorrect overstatement of the funding based on the change that needed to occur.

“That was resolved, and the funding, to our knowledge, is accurate at this time,” he said.

The school finance consulting firm Picus Odden & Associates used its evidence-based model to help the state legislature recalibrate the state’s school funding system in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020, according to the firm’s 2020 report for the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. The firm said on its website that its model helps set how much money schools need to “provide every student an equal education opportunity to achieve to state proficiency standards, increasingly standards that would prepare a student to be successful in college or the world of work in the evolving, knowledge-based, global economy.”

Trustee John Riesland said at the meeting that he was part of the Wyoming School Boards Association model that helped with the Picus school funding model for the state, and it was “kind of a plug-and-play sort of thing” at the time. He said that he believes the program should still be “very simple.”

“We have to have a budget done by the third week of July by statute. And we found out in March that our budget doesn’t really matter; it’s just an estimate. I find that very difficult, in my mind, to be able to work that way,” Riesland said.

Riesland said that while he understands the department only has two people who work on the school funding model, he still finds that the school district and school board are in a tough position for planning, considering the nearly $200,000 discrepancy. He said that the state officials should already know the reimbursable dollars, so that mainly just leaves student numbers to calculate how much funding the district should receive.

“That may be oversimplifying it, but that’s basically what we’re looking at,” he said.

Carroll reiterated that the model is a complicated process and changes, such as the external cost adjustment, may be both unpredictable and significant. Carroll said that the average daily membership of a school district can also impact a small school district’s budget.

Carroll said that the department found that there was “a question” concerning transportation reimbursement.

“When that question was resolved, that was a swing in your funding by $122,000, roughly, and that happened in January, so well into the school year,” he said.

Linda Finnerty, the department’s chief communication officer, said in an email on April 13 that when the district reported necessary data adjustments to the department to update incorrectly reported transportation reimbursement data, the guarantee decreased by $122,615.

The state has launched a budgeting tool for the 2024-25 school year that districts can use to budget out five years in advance, Degenfelder said.

Carroll said the team hopes the tool will allow districts to create an initial estimate and refine the estimate throughout the year as the department releases versions as more information, such as the external cost adjustment, becomes available.

“But it really is an estimate, at the end of the day,” Carroll said.

Carroll recommended that school districts also examine what their funding has been like for the past few years and the factors that they are aware of, such as changes in enrollment and external cost adjustment. Some districts fund portions of their budget with existing cash reserves or cash in the bank, he said. He also said it’s “not uncommon” for districts to alter their budgets during the year once they learn more information, and the state officials are available to answer questions.

“We hear all the time that that’s something that happens in districts,” Carroll said. “So I think you create the best estimate to start the year and then you update as you go and you just keep an eye on everything and adapt as you can.”

Superintendent Brad LaCroix asked the state officials what amount of “buffer” the school board should plan as it prepares a budget for July.

“I’m not sure that I’m comfortable speculating on that because there are so many variables and unknowns at this time, and we don’t have current school year data at this time,” Carroll said. “So I don’t know if there are changes that could impact your funding either up or down.”

Carroll said that the state will not receive certain data from school districts that can impact funding, such as the education and experience of staff or the average daily membership data, until August.

“Nobody likes to see a swing in either way of the budget,” Degenfelder said. “I think there’s always ways that we can improve, but it truly is a collaborative process and the swings occur from inputs from the district and inputs from the state. And I think that’s why we have such a thorough process going through the Legislative Services Office through Picus to make sure that the revenue received is accurate.”

Many corrections were made to the funding formula for Weston County School District #1 between September 2023 and March 2024, Degenfelder said, including a $4.5 million correction from the school district and “small ones” from the state.

However, LaCroix said in a May 7 email to the News Letter Journal that he has “not a clue” what the $4.5 million correction from the district is. That discrepancy was not brought up during the meeting on May 6, and the News Letter Journal attempted to follow up with Finnerty, Degenfelder, Carroll and Chief of Staff Dicky Shanor the following morning to find out what that $4.5 million correction is, and those officials did not immediately respond.

Factors that affect school funding

According to Leslie Zimmerschied, supervisor of the Wyoming Department of Education School Foundation Program, other factors that affect school funding include free and reduced lunch counts, English language learner counts and the cost of living in the school district. In addition to staff members’ years of experience and education levels, their scope of responsibility can also make an impact, she said. How the cost of health insurance premiums for staff salaries compares with that of state employees’ premiums on the state plan, is one of the components that can change the most, according to Zimmerschied. The state examines all Wyoming school districts’ employees’ selections, counts the full-time equivalents for all those positions and weighs that against the premium amounts of the similar plans that the state offers, she said.

--- Online Subscribers: Please click here to log in to read this story and access all content.

Not an Online Subscriber? Click here to subscribe.

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates