close
close

Lawsuit alleging Wyoming unconstitutionally underfunds schools headed to trial

A court has denied the state’s request for partial summary judgment in the 2022 lawsuit filed by the Wyoming Education Association and joined by eight school districts.

By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

The lawsuit over how Wyoming funds public education is on track for a full trial after a Laramie County District Court judge on Wednesday denied the state’s request to rule part of the case now.

The lawsuit, filed by the Wyoming Education Association in 2022, alleges that Wyoming violated its Constitution by failing to adequately fund public schools. Eight school districts joined the lawsuit as intervenors to challenge the state.

Judge Peter Froelicher’s decision Wednesday hampers the state’s latest attempt to prevent the case from being heard on the merits in court. In December 2022, the Laramie County District Court denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

This time, Wyoming attorneys asked the judge to rule on behalf of the state against some of WEA’s claims before trial. It filed that motion in February, and since then a flurry of responses have been filed with the court. This included a motion for partial summary judgment from the eight districts. The judge also rejected that request in his ruling on Wednesday.

In a news release Friday, WEA President Grady Hutcherson said time is of the essence on this issue: Wyoming is already losing talented education professionals to other states that offer better salaries and working conditions. Low wages and unfair workloads are contributing to “record turnover” in Wyoming school districts, according to a news release from WEA, which represents the state’s teachers but is not a real union.

“Students and teachers are suffering from underfunding,” Hutcherson said.

The case will last five weeks in June.

History

The 2022 complaint essentially states that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund a high-quality, equitable, cost-based public education system. According to the indictment, it did this by not allowing periodic adjustments to external costs and by underfunding the state’s education model.

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 education.”

Court interpretations in cases challenging the state’s model have resulted in a system in which the Legislature “recalibrates” — or reviews changes in school costs and inflation requirements — at least every five years and adjusts annually for inflation.

Some Jackson Hole High School students eat their lunch in the hallways because the cafeteria is too small to accommodate them all. (Teton County School District No. 1)

According to the Legislative Services Office, state spending on education increased from $443 million, or $4,372 per student in 1985, to 1.5 billion, or $16,751 per student, in 2022.

But students and teachers are suffering from underfunding, according to the Wyoming Education Association.

Intermediate school districts 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.

Accusations

WEA and the districts allege the Legislature is violating the Wyoming Constitution in several ways.

WEA alleges that the Legislature failed to adjust the amount of funding to reflect the effects of inflation, failed to properly assess school facilities for adequacy, technology and appropriateness, and failed to implement the components of to properly assess quality education. The state has not updated its funding model to reflect true, current costs and to provide funding for innovations or changes in the nature of what constitutes quality education, the WEA alleges. In similar claims, the districts suggest that the Legislature does not adequately fund all essential aspects of quality public education, including staff salaries, counseling services, food and nutrition services, and safety.

The result, according to the court filings, is that public education in Wyoming is constitutionally inadequate, with unequal and disparate treatment of different school districts and students.

If WEA and the districts prevail, the court could authorize the Legislature to improve the school finance model’s salary schedule; Add funding to the model to cover missing components of adequate public education and/or create a funding source for school buildings.

Previous challenges

Along with its motions for dismissal and partial summary judgment, in 2023, Wyoming asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to intervene in the case regarding the level of investigation appropriate to determine the outcome.

The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision that “strict scrutiny” will be applied, and rejected the state’s request for a lower standard.

Commenting on the latest decision, Froelicher’s order stated that in order to obtain summary judgment, Wyoming must show that there is no genuine dispute as to material facts in the case.

Instead, “the parties’ statements of undisputed material facts are rarely consistent,” the decision reads.


WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on the people, places and policies of Wyoming.