Wyoming’s schools at risk as the state’s extraction industries erode – High Country News

Posted: March 23, 2021 at 2:17 pm

Home to 649 people, Shoshoni is one of the many small towns in Wyoming where the school district is the biggest employer.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

This story was originally publishedbyThe Wyoming Tribune EagleandThe Hechinger Reportand is republished here by permission.

Annie Good and her co-teacher have made their fifth grade classroom a homey space for their 33 students. The room is on the south wing of the sprawling K-12 education complex in Shoshoni, Wyoming,a town of 649 people.

The $49 million school building, up the road from the abandoned storefronts downtown, can make visitors look twice, said Christopher Konija, Shoshonis police chief, who is also town clerk and treasurer.

Its like looking at two different worlds, he said. To me, the school what it looks like and what it represents shows the potential for Shoshoni.

The state-built, modern building is just one brick-and-mortar example of how Wyoming has poured its mineral wealth into its school system ever since the state Supreme Court heard a series of cases starting in 1980 challenging the equity and adequacy of school funding in Wyoming.In 1995, the court found that legislators were indeed responsible for budgeting enough money to fund aqualityeducation for all Wyoming children. And though such findings are not uncommon nationally, the result in Wyoming has been to make it the biggest spender per student in the Mountain West and one of the biggest in the United States.

Wyomings per-pupil expenditure in 2017 was $18,221, compared with the national average of around $13,000.

Wyomings per-pupil expenditure in 2017 was $18,221, compared with the national average of around $13,000, according toEducation Weeks Quality Counts 2020report, which adjusts the numbers for regional cost differences. The report gave the state an A in spending and an A-minus in equity for an overall grade of A-minus (achieved by only one other state, New Jersey). WyomingsNational Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, too, are consistently higher than the national average and on par with Northeastern education strongholds like New Jersey.

But as the states once-booming coal, oil and gas industries erode, maintaining those funding levels would mean raising taxes in one of the countrysmost conservative, tax-averse states.

For years, fossil fuel money has paid for competitive teacher salaries, drawing educators to Wyomings constellation of small schools. Its part of the reason why Good, the fifth grade teacher at Shoshoni, moved to Wyomingsix years ago with her husband and two young daughters. Shed been living and teaching in Arizona, which spends less than half of what Wyoming does per student. She wanted better teaching conditions and pay for herself (her monthly salary nearly doubled when she moved) and a better education for her girls.Wyoming prides itself on being a red state, it just doesnt realize which red it is, said Richard Seder, an education policy consultant who has worked for the state. Using Wyomings unmatched mineral wealth to offer every student access to the same high-dollar education was the socialist utopia to have everything and never have to pay for it.

Students work in Shoshonis updated welding lab, which it upgraded last year with the help of a $122,000 grant from the state.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

According to data from the Wyoming Department of Education, as of the 2019-20 school year, about 53% of the revenue in Fremont County School District 24, which consists of only the Shoshoni school, came from local taxes; 43% came from the state. TheConocoPhillips Lost Cabin natural gas plant30 miles away in Lysite pads the district with more local revenue than many others have. (The adjacent Fremont County School District 25 got 78% of its revenue fromthe state in the last school year.) During the years Shoshoni was constructing the new school building, the state paid more than half of the districts budget, which is a relatively modest $9 million.

Figures like that are not uncommon in the nations least-populated state, which typically serves around 94,000 K-12 students total, or roughly the same student population as Denver. Over the past 20 years, Wyoming, which is the nations single largest producer of coal, has used approximately $2.5 billion from federal coal-lease bonuses and federal mineral royalties to build more than 70 new schools, like the one in Shoshoni, and improve hundreds more.

Essentially what Wyoming did was export the cost of its education system to people outside of Wyoming, Seder said. Tying school funding to mineral wealth meant local taxpayers did not think about the amount spent on education in their state in terms of their own pocketbooks.

... the predictable bust cycles [in the fossil fuel market] have brought the chickens home to roost.

Unfortunately, the predictable bust cycles [in the fossil fuel market] have brought the chickens home to roost, he said.

Since 2008, which was the peak of production in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, where more than40% of the nations coalis produced, a drop in market demand has driven a steep decline in Wyomings primary revenue stream. When including volatile oil and gas revenues, mineral extraction has accounted for anywhere from 50% to almost 70% of Wyomings general fund over the years.

In 2019, Wyoming produced 277 million short tons of coal, according to theWyoming State Geological Survey, compared with 466 million short tons in 2008. Reduced energy demands during the COVID-19 pandemic have driven down coal, oil and gas consumption even more. In March 2020, Wyoming had 21 active oil and gas rigs in the state.Now it has five.

In a state where half of the land is managed by the federal government, President Joe Bidens recently announced moratorium on newoil and gas leases on federal lands 92% of natural gas and 51% of oilin Wyoming is produced on federal lands could make things even tighter for schools, said Jillian Balow, the state schools superintendent. Balow joined education chiefs in North Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Utah last month toask Biden for an exemption.

This is a lockdown of an industry that our students in Wyoming really depend on, Balow recently toldFox News Dana Perinoin response to the temporary ban. The Wyoming Department of Education estimated that oil and gas produced in Wyoming contributes $740 million to public education per year and that federal royalties paid to the state on oil and gas contribute $150 million per year to K-12 funding.

Eli Bebout, the recently retired former president of the Wyoming State Senate and a 1964 graduate of Shoshoni High School, said it was time to find a new solution for school funding, because coal is not coming back, and oil and gas are not looking good either.

A view of the road through the Wind River Canyon in Fremont County, Wyoming. The state reimburses school districts for 100% of transportation costs, which allows buses to regularly transport students long distances through Wyomings wide-open spaces.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

Back when Bebout was in school, traveling for a ballgame was often a reminder of the wealth disparities dotting Wyomings vast terrain of oil fields and coal mines.

Wed go to some of those school districts that had a lot of oil production, and there was a clear imbalance in what they were able to provide for their students, he said. It wasnt just athletics. It was in the band, it was in all kinds of extracurricular activities and in the schools themselves. Classes were larger in those days, too, he remembered.

During his tenure of more than 25 years in the Legislature, Bebout, a Republican, consistently questioned school funding levels, suggesting money does not necessarily enhance performance.

There was a balance that needed to be obtained, he said. But instead of finding a balance between the low side and the high side, we all went to the high side.

State Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who chairs the Senate Education Committee now, shares a similar perspective. He said Wyoming spends too much in the way of administrators, some of the activities and busing students. He also thinks too much is spent on school facilities.

Scott said he sees taxes as a necessary evil and prefers to look first for ways to trim the states education budget. Were in the process of seeing how far we can get that way, he said. After weve done that, then will be the time to look at increasing taxes to pay for what we want in education.

Bruce Thoren, superintendent of Fremont County School District 24, knows what he wants in education. He wants the plentiful resources he has now, the ones that fuel his small districts93% graduation rate. He wants the social worker who teaches lessons about conflict resolution and growth mindset to all 383 students at Shoshoni. He wants the sometimes-expensive interventions needed to help special education students. And he wants those buses, which travel through winding mountain passes and fat slices of desert to allow kids to compete in basketball games, attend FFA conventions or just get to school. In wide-open Wyoming, buses represent academic opportunity.

Fremont County School District 24 Superintendent Bruce Thoren, who says having a nice school building is a source of pride for the whole community, not least the students.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

Without that opportunity to do whats in the best interest of the kid and whats best going to meet their needs at that time, instead of turning into a productive member of society, they may just be a drain on society, said Thoren, who greeted nearly every student by name on a mid-morning stroll down the freshly painted blue and white corridors of the school he considers a second home.

Sitting in his office overlooking the school parking lot, where the Big Horn Rams basketball team had just begun spilling off a bus after a four-hour ride, Thoren said he supports raising a tax to preserve the current school funding system and to keep Wyomings small communities like Shoshoni alive.

Until recently, Shoshoni students attended school in a 1930s-era building that had weathered the wear-and-tear of many generations walking through its doors. The building was eventually demolished and the state built thenew135,724-square-foot school in 2016. A school building as nice as the one the town has now is more than just a place to hold class, Thoren said. Its a matter of pride for the whole community, and for students not least of all. You dont see any trash in the parking lot when you pull up now, he said. That level of pride wasnt there at the old school.

Historic photographs of the original 1930s-era Shoshoni School building hang on the wall in Shoshoni Town Hall. The building underwent several renovations before it was demolished. The state of Wyoming spent $49 million to build a modern school, which opened in 2016, up the road from the old one.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

A wide range of scholarship has explored whether more money for schools directly improves student academic outcomes, but the results are inconclusive, said David Thompson, a professor of education at Kansas State University. Measuring the value of intangible benefits, like students sense of pride in their school buildings, is even more difficult.

Experts do, however, accept the notion that countries that make higher investments in education have greater levels of social stability and economic productivity than those that dont, Thompson said.

Better-funded schools will most likely have higher test scores and graduation rates, he said. If you begin to withdraw resources, I think youll see those numbers go in an unfavorable direction.

Thompson, who co-edited the 2019 book Funding Public Schools in the United States and Indian Country, describes Wyomings constitutional mandate to fund an equitable education as one of the strongest in the nation and one he wishes other states would replicate.

But Thompson said suggesting replication to policymakers usually gets them running the other way.

Thats because in most other states, sales tax, income tax and property tax make up the three-legged stool of school revenue bases. But in Wyoming, energy production revenues have allowed it to avoid relying on taxing residents until now.

Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith has lived through boom and bust in his hometown, which sits at the base of the Wind River Canyon, just off the highway tourists use to get to Yellowstone or Jackson Hole. Back when he attended the old Shoshoni High School between 1967 and 1971, the town was still years away from the uranium bust that hit in the 1980s.

There was a lot more prosperity at the time, he said. Shoshoni was filled with a lot more young people, because there was a lot of work.

Shoshoni sits at the intersection of U.S. Highway 26 and U.S. Highway 20. The now-closed Yellowstone Drug Store in Shoshoni was once a popular pit stop for milkshake-hungry tourists on the road to Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons. But steady economic decline has left the town with one place to buy food: The Fast Lane Inc. convenience store and gas station.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

These days, the school district is the towns biggest employer. Next in line is a mushroom farm, followed by the only place in town to buy a candy bar: The Fast Lane Inc. convenience store and gas station.

Attracting new businesses to town is one of Highsmiths primary goals as mayor. Hes been close a few times. This time last year, California-based pet supply company Laube Co. came to the area looking for a place to build a factory and warehouse. They were very, very impressed, he said, but the town didnt have a big enough facility to accommodate Laubes timeline.

Hes had interest from a few more businesses, but hes worried about which way the school funding fight will go. Owners of a new business will want good schools to send their children to, he said. And theyll want a qualified workforce.

Highsmith hopes the districts technical offerings, including a state-of-the-art welding lab, which was upgraded last year with the help of a $122,000 grant from the state, will help develop that workforce and be a selling point for some of the companies scouting his town.

Austin Sullivan, a ninth grader whos attended Shoshoni since kindergarten, has been spending several hours a week in the lab rebuilding a motorbike he daydreams about racing through the Bighorn Basin.

Its actually my dream to become a mechanic, said Austin, who started taking career and technical education courses in seventh grade.

Training future mechanics like Austin, along with young experts in other high-demand and emerging technical fields, is key to the states future, said Michelle Aldrich, state director of Wyomings career and technical education programs.

If were going to diversify Wyomings economy and our tax base, we have to attract business and industries that dont rely on the extraction industry, Aldrich said. In order to do that, were going to have to have a trained workforce.

I hope weve learned our lesson not to put all of our eggs in one basket, she said.

Students eat lunch under the high ceilings of Shoshonis cafeteria. In sparsely populated Wyoming, the majority of schools have remained open for modified in-person instruction this year despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kathryn Palmer for The Hechinger Report

Back in Shoshoni, though, there is really only one egg in the towns basket. Its the school.

The school could be the deciding factor in whether or not his plans to revitalize Shoshoni come to pass, Highsmith said. Thats why he and Konija, the town police chief, have decided that despite their general desire to keep taxes low, they support raising taxes to save their states schools.

Refusing to even talk about it, Konija said, is essentially signing the death warrant for Wyoming.

Kathryn Palmer is an education reporter for The Wyoming Tribune Eagle.This story aboutschool fundingwas produced byThe Wyoming Tribune EagleandThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for theHechinger newsletter.EmailHigh Country Newsat[emailprotected]or submit aletter to the editor.

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Wyoming's schools at risk as the state's extraction industries erode - High Country News

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