Cheyenne schools look to bonds, lawsuit to meet funding needs

CHEYENNE — While the state government is experiencing a financial structural deficit, Laramie County School District 1 officials are looking for funding solutions.

Some of these include possibly placing the responsibility on the Laramie County taxpayer through issuing bonds. LCSD1 also could sue the state.

This is to ensure the largest school district in Wyoming has the adequate level of funding to not only procure new buildings, but maintain, repair, remodel and renovate existing buildings. LCSD1 Director of Support Operations Andy Knapp told trustees Monday there are long-term plans for a fifth and sixth grade school in the South triad and a kindergarten through fourth grade elementary school in the next decade.

Although this is subject to change throughout the planning period, he said the new facilities are designed to address capacity and building condition issues. Some of the elementary schools in south Cheyenne have exceeded their capacity, and he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle the condition of several of the district’s facilities place them in the top 20 highest-need schools in the state.

“We’re trying to bring awareness to the urgent needs of facility funding for the district, the challenges in obtaining some of the constitutionally mandated funding that is provided by the state, as well as the timeframe that it takes to go through this process,” Knapp said at the board meeting.

In preparation for any further budget cuts, LCSD1 Finance Director Jed Cicarelli said he is working with the district to develop a multi-pronged system to address facility needs. But there are only so many options available to school administrators.

He said they will need to work through the legislative process to guarantee facilities are accurately assessed, that funding is appropriated for renovating and repairing those buildings, and exploring other sources of revenue. Cicarelli presented the option for the trustees to consider a motion to authorize legal action against the state to ensure that educational funding would comply with the Wyoming Constitution and applicable governing law.

Another approach LCSD1 is considering taking is through bonded debt, which he said has not been used often since the Wyoming Supreme Court decisions based on cases involving Washakie County in 1980 and Campbell County in 1995 placed the responsibility of funding on the state.

“It’s because it’s kind of a remnant process to fund facilities in the past,” he said.

The Capital City district would work with the public to pass a bond resolution allowing LCSD1 to issue bonds, and then use a specific property tax mill levy to cover the cost. This also requires the district to engage with consultants to review its financial practices and determine the credit rating, as well as its ability to pay back the debt.

LCSD1’s financial director said school districts would only use this process for enhancing school buildings, or paying for aspects of the facility the state deemed not a part of the basket of goods after the court’s finding, but more than 40 years ago, this was how entire projects were funded.

New schools vary in cost, as it takes around five years to construct one from start to finish. The latest construction project in LCSD1, Coyote Ridge Elementary, which is just getting underway, came out to be $30 million. The original estimate was $25 million, but with inflation and the impacts of the pandemic on the supply chain, an additional $5 million was appropriated by the Legislature last session.

Knapp told the WTE he expected the new fifth- and sixth-grade elementary school proposed for the South triad to cost close to the same by following the facilities guideline. The district declined to provide the WTE with the PowerPoint presentation given to the Board of Trustees during the work session held Monday, so exact figures and the plan are not available.

Cicarelli explained that because funding does not come through local taxes, the state is responsible for providing those resources for construction. However, he said with the structural deficits that the state has faced in the last few years, there hasn’t been enough revenue to cover those costs.

Lawmakers have also recognized the funding issue, and many of the Wyoming Legislature’s committees made it a priority to discuss throughout the current interim session leading up to next year’s general session. The next meeting for the Select Committee on School Facilities is June 22, where reports and assessments will be presented for the next biennium.

Spending concerns were so prevalent during the 2022 budget session, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, brought forward an amendment to cut every expenditure for school construction, maintenance and modular leases from the budget. After he withdrew the amendment to the 2023-24 biennium budget bill, debate continued on how to be fiscally responsible with education.

“It seems to be an uphill battle to get these funded,” Knapp said.