BIG PINEY – Rep. Albert Sommers attended the Sublette County School District No. 9 Board of Trustees' May 18 meeting to discuss school funding and a possible upcoming special legislative session this summer.
Sommers and Sen. Dan Dockstader both spoke at the Sublette County School District No. 1 board meeting the previous week. Sommers said that a willingness by Dockstader, the Senate president, to travel outside his constituency was a positive sign that the two legislative chambers could work together.
Sommers explained to the District No. 9 trustees that the May 2020 Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report used to plan the budget predicted a $1.1-billion decrease in general funds and a $400-million shortfall in education.
The economic shock caused by COVID-19 and a nosedive in oil prices led to the dismal financial outlook for the state, Sommers explained.
As the nation began to recover from COVID-19’s financial fallout and oil prices started to rise, CREG upgraded its initial shortfall by approximately $400 million, Sommers said. He added that the state and education still faced cuts if a solution was not reached.
Following extensive debate on the amount of cuts to schools and numerous amendments, House Bill 173, related to the school-funding model, passed by a significant majority in the house, Sommers added. The bill included a half-cent sales tax and avenues to use federal money to soften the blow to local school districts.
The Senate failed to pass the bill, leading to an impasse on school funding that remains unresolved.
Sommers told the trustees that a half-cent sales tax could generate $80 million in revenue for schools. The tax would be exclusively for education, he said.
Sommers hoped that during a special session, the chambers could focus on finding ways to use federal COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act. He also discussed an amendment to HB 173 that would raise the cap on the amount of revenue districts can put into reserve accounts from 15 percent to give districts more financial flexibility.
Before the meeting, Sommers reported that he held telephone conversations with Gov. Mark Gordon and State Superintendent Jillian Balow. Sommers raised concerns about the various committees on education spending appointed by the governor and superintendent.
The governor’s committee was too business oriented, Sommers said. While business had a role at the education-spending table, Sommers did not believe it had to be the primary voice. Sommers also worried that the different committees would move in different directions, making a consensus on education difficult.
Board chairman John Fear expressed frustration with the legislature’s failure to find a solution to education funding. He asked Sommers why the two chambers had pushed the issue to the last minute.
“It would be nice if the House and Senate could come together before the last 12 hours of their session,” he said. “We’re sitting here waiting, especially this year, and it’s really unfair for a small district. We know that we’re going to have to cut one way or the other. But we’re holding contracts, and the teachers get on eggshells because they don’t know if they get to teach or not (next year).”