How much should Wyoming pay for education? Ongoing trial involving local school district could answer that.

By Katie Klingsporn,
Posted 6/12/24

A six-week bench trial over Wyoming’s school funding formula is underway in a Cheyenne courtroom.

The heart of the case — whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation …

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How much should Wyoming pay for education? Ongoing trial involving local school district could answer that.


A six-week bench trial over Wyoming’s school funding formula is underway in a Cheyenne courtroom.

The heart of the case — whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to fund education — is dense and complicated. A parade of witnesses is anticipated to testify on topics ranging from major maintenance projects to school lunches, campus security and staffing.

The outcome could have a bearing on the mechanisms by which Wyoming funds everything from teacher salaries to deferred maintenance in its 48 school districts. With nearly two years elapsed since the lawsuit was filed, WyoFile offers this refresher on Wyoming’s school funding model and what’s in the current lawsuit.


How we got here

The Wyoming Education Association, an educator advocacy group with 6,000 members, filed the 71-page lawsuit in August 2022. Eight school districts joined the lawsuit as intervenors to challenge the state.

The suit claims the state of Wyoming has violated its constitution by failing to adequately fund public schools and has withheld appropriate funding at the expense of educational excellence, safety and security. That has left districts to fend for themselves and divert funds from other crucial educational activities, which causes further systemic erosion, the suit contends.

Article 7 of the Wyoming Constitution states that the Legislature “shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction.” Landmark court cases further delineated the state’s obligations in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The more recent of those, the Campbell cases, set the stage for Wyoming’s current school funding obligations. Those cases culminated in 1995 when the Wyoming Supreme Court ordered the state to determine the cost of a high-quality education, fund public schools, adjust funding at least every two years for inflation and review the components of the school funding model every five years to ensure resources are keeping pace with needs and costs.

The court required the Legislature “to consider education as a paramount priority over all other considerations.” Its determination gave rise to a funding framework defined by two key ideas: the “basket of goods” — the skills and subjects students are required to learn, as well as “recalibration” — the process by which the Legislature reviews and adjusts its funding model.

The Wyoming Education Association was an intervening party to that suit.


What’s in the current suit

The 2022 complaint essentially contends that in the years following the Campbell cases, the state has failed to meet its school funding obligations. It’s done so by not granting periodic external cost adjustments and allocating insufficient funds to match necessary funding levels, the suit alleges.

That includes teacher, administrator and support personnel salaries.

“In 2010, that teacher salary advantage was approximately 25% above the average of surrounding states and Wyoming districts competed well for the best teachers,” the suit reads. “Due to the failure to keep the model adjusted for inflation, that advantage has disappeared, and Wyoming districts not only cannot compete for high-quality teachers, but in a number of instances, Wyoming districts cannot compete to hire anyone for some positions.”

Wyoming districts have also been unable to “provide necessary support services for students; have delayed purchase of new textbooks, equipment, technology and other essentials; have cut back on activities and opportunities for students; and, in some cases, even eliminated programs,” the suit reads.

Along with impacting the state’s stable of teachers, the underfunding has led to deteriorating levels of safety and security as well as the continued use of unsuitable facilities with unmet maintenance needs, according to the suit.

Moreover, the suit alleges, the failure to fund schools is not based on inability — “rather, it is ultimately a result of the lack of political will to follow the clear constitutional mandate.”

The suit also alleged that Wyoming has used several consultants to conduct its “recalibration” studies, but “stopped using each of them in turn when the consultants’ recommendations included increased funding.

“The level of funding for the model currently being provided is actually far below the funding level recommendations of the Legislature’s own consultants when the model was studied as part of ‘recalibration,’” the suit reads. “In reality, even those studies seriously understated the actual cost of education.”

Intervening school districts in the current case include Albany County School District No. 1; Campbell County School District No. 1; Carbon County School District No. 1; Laramie County School District No. 1; Lincoln County School District No. 1; Sweetwater County School District No. 1; Sweetwater County School District No. 2; and Uinta County School District No. 1.


Current spending

State education spending has increased from $443 million, or $4,372 per student in 1985, to $1.5 billion, or $16,751 per student, in 2022, according to the Legislative Service Office.

Increases can be tied to many factors, including a growing number of students requiring special education services, increasing technology needs and rising inflation.

Wyoming’s low population and rural nature also contribute to it having some of the highest per-pupil spending in the nation.


Legal moves

In December 2022, the Laramie County District Court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. 

Then in 2023, Wyoming asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to intervene in the case regarding the level of scrutiny appropriate for determining the outcome. The Supreme Court upheld the district court’s decision that “strict scrutiny” shall be applied, denying the state’s petition for a lesser standard.

On May 1, Laramie County District Court Judge Peter Froelicher denied the state’s motion for partial summary, sending the case to trial.


Six weeks

The trial kicked off Monday in Laramie County District Court with opening arguments and plaintiff testimony. Over the first two days, plaintiffs’ witnesses provided testimony regarding unfilled district positions, salary adjustments, how schools qualify for major construction projects and curricula. Witnesses included WEA President Grady Hutcherson, who spent 24 years teaching in a classroom, as well as district employees like superintendents and human resource managers.

One of the outcomes plaintiffs seek is that the court grant “retroactive relief” to districts for “a reasonable amount of the funding that should have been delivered to them to date.”

The court is broadcasting the trial live, find the stream here.


WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.