Image: Computerized teaching
Mead Gruver  /  AP file
Calculus teacher Shane Costello uses a large computer screen in place of a chalkboard to teach his class in May at the Pinedale High School in Pinedale, Wyo.
updated 9/19/2006 4:01:18 PM ET 2006-09-19T20:01:18

Thanks to natural gas, Wyoming’s schools have money to burn.

In the little Pinedale district way out in sagebrush country, for example, every fifth-grader has a new laptop. Many lessons are shown on oversized computer screens instead of chalkboards. And there are plans for a $17.2 million aquatic center, with a three-story climbing wall, two racquetball courts and a competition-size pool.

Rising production and soaring prices for natural gas have helped Wyoming produce huge budget surpluses over the past few years — $1.8 billion in 2006 alone and $900 million the year before that. And much of it has been pumped back into education.

The revenue stands to vault Wyoming above the rest of the country in per-student spending and represents a historic opportunity to transform education in this state and make it perhaps the finest in the country.

The big money has Jim McBride, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, full of big and bold predictions.

“We probably will have the nation’s No. 1 graduation rate, maybe college attendance rate. We probably will have the highest NAEP scores,” he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.

Hoping to raise the bar
Wyoming ranked 22nd in 2002-03 with a graduation rate of 74 percent; its college enrollment rate in 2003 was 52 percent, compared with about 58 percent nationally; and its NAEP test scores for math, reading and science in 2005 placed it above the middle of the pack.

Wyoming is pumping more than 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year — enough for one in three homes in the United States — in a boom that has been going on for nearly five years.

Divvying up the wealth last winter, the Legislature boosted school spending for this academic year 24 percent to more than $12,400 per pupil. That is close to the top state, New Jersey and its $12,981.

And that’s not counting the $1 billion Wyoming started pouring into school construction a few years ago.

Nor does it include a $400 million endowment set up this past winter to provide scholarships for Wyoming high school graduates. Those with a 3.0 grade-point average and a score of 21 on the ACT admissions exam will receive nearly a free ride to the University of Wyoming or one of the state’s seven community colleges.

Most districts sharply increased teacher salaries this year, boosting the state’s average starting pay 23 percent to $36,000, or about 20 percent above the national average. In Jackson, the school board voted recently to raise the starting salary 48 percent to $50,000. Pinedale’s recruits received a 17 percent increase to $41,000.

“It takes more than money,” Pinedale Superintendent Charles Grove allowed. “But money, if it’s spent wisely, will help do the things that need to be done.”

The source of the wealth isn’t far from his window.

Pumping out profits
Scattered around the Green River Basin sagebrush country, where antelope can be spotted easily and the snowcapped Wind River Range can be seen in the distance, hundreds of wells pump Cretaceous-era gas deposits into a maze of pipelines. At $2.9 billion, Sublette County’s tax base last year worked out to $422,000 per person, higher than in Beverly Hills, Calif.

In addition to the computers and the aquatics center, the school system is getting a bus garage and a middle school expansion.

The boom has its downside, too. Because hundreds of gas workers have moved to Sublette County, enrollment in the Pinedale school district surged nearly 10 percent this year to 765 and is forecast to double in 10 years. Wyoming school enrollment overall was at a standstill in the past few years at around 84,000, but is expected to start rising again, too.

“We have a lot of other things that we have to deal with that come along with having this money,” said Ron Ruckman, a fifth-grade teacher at Pinedale Elementary School. “It’s not all cream.”

When will the flow end?
How long the money will flow is another question. Mindful of the coal-and-oil boom that went bust in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Wyoming legislators paired this year’s prolific spending with aggressive saving.

But for McBride, who was appointed last year and is now campaigning for his job, times are good: “I think the stars just properly aligned.”

Ken Egle moved to Pinedale in March to take a job doing preparation work at gas well sites ahead of drilling. Egle sold his farm in Nebraska to work in Wyoming’s gas fields. His wife and four children — twin 15-year-old boys, a 12-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son — followed him in May.

“Fifty percent of the reason we decided to come out here is we wanted to come out to a school district that did have some money,” he said. “We talked to the teachers, and anything the teachers needed for education, they got it. Back home, our school system, everything they needed was being kept back. ... It was starting to hurt our kids, education-wise.”

He added: “My wife thinks we’ve hit the lottery in finding this place. So we’ll see.”

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