Wyoming’s education system: a success story with leaders treading lightly to maintain the prosperity

As restrictions tighten on mining and states strive to diversify their energy sources, coal mining has an uncertain future.
Updated: Feb. 27, 2023 at 6:00 PM MST
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GILLETTE, Wyo. (KEVN) - For decades Wyoming has raked in money from the coal industry and the state’s education system has excelled because of it. In 2022, The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks Wyoming’s education system 4th in the nation, known as the “Best in the West”.

Wyoming attributes its high score to mineral money.

“Education is half of Wyoming’s budget, K-12 education is half of Wyoming’s budget. There is some real hard conversation that happens on a yearly basis in the legislature and it’s going to continue to happen,” said Rusty Bell, director of diversification for the office of economic transformation.

Wyoming’s budget is created every other year. The 2023-24 budget was more than $3.5 billion, with $1.9 billion earmarked for education. In 2022, it is estimated that the state spent $16,751 per student, higher than the national average of $13,494.

“That boom helped Wyoming with its K-12 system get through many trials and tribulations,” said Wyoming Representative, Mike Yin. “But like everything else, everything changes.” Like the state losing out on coal lease bonuses that paid for school construction. From 1998 to 2016 the bonuses funded $2.2 billion for new schools. Most of those lease bonuses originate in Campbell County.

“We were able to build schools, not just in Campbell County, but we fueled a lot of the construction across the state of Wyoming,” said Larry Reznicek, human resources director for Campbell County School District.. In Campbell County, the money was used to create a second high school in 2017, one year after the district reached its peak student enrollment.

“Right now, we’re about 8,500 students, and we’re down a little bit. In 2016 was our all-time high, we were a little over 9,200 students and that was the peak of our student population,” stated Reznicek. “Then that’s when they started to see the mine layoffs, because then a year after that, the 2017 school year, we dropped about 450 students.”

Wyoming’s education funding model is said to be one of the fairest in the nation, keeping teachers’ wages competitive. However, mineral wealth is dying off and some are worried about the future of keeping Wyoming schools superior. Leaders believe the premier education and teacher pay will continue.

“500 students were not in our schools the following August and you fast forward to where we are right now, it’s not negative. You go look at the billboards in Gillette, look how many mines are hiring right now. They’ve changed, they’re mining less coal, but that coal seems to be more valuable right now,” said Bell.

The Campbell County School District’s staffing situation is flexible. Reznicek says using attrition helps the district manage the ebb and flow of student enrollment. “People retire, people, move on, people have other opportunities, and sometimes their spouses get moved or transferred based on their jobs in the mines, oil, or whatever,” explained Reznicek. “So, we always have turnover every year and we look at that. We always say ‘well now is not the time to hire, so let’s adjust that way.’”

Mineral wealth and property taxes are primary contributors toward the Wyoming education system, while the coal industry wallets are getting slimmer. Legislators in Wyoming battle out whether to provide property tax relief for their constituents, but the impact on schools is unknown.

Man Camps and Crime

Coal mines sprawl across Campbell County. When these mines were seeing massive employment gains, man camps were introduced. These camps are temporary places for mining employees to live and are typically located near mines or pipelines. These camps go hand-in-hand with crime. A study from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that at a man camp near North Dakota, violent crime, particularly aggravated assault, increased by 70%.

In Wyoming, one such camp was set up near an elementary school. ”We have Rawhide school out there, they let us know who’s coming in, who’s staying, because there is a man camp out there, or there was a man camp out there when they were building the station,” said Reznicek.

In the past three years, violent crime has decreased in Campbell County.

Editors Note: this is part two of a three-part series on Wyoming’s coal industry.