Most residents of Albany County live in or near Laramie, one of Wyoming’s largest communities.
But in the northern reaches of the county, some ranches are so isolated it takes more than an hour of driving just to get to the county’s only other incorporated town – tiny Rock River. And that’s on good day when roads are clear and the wind isn’t howling.
From Rock River, it’s another 43 miles to Laramie, again on roads that can be all but impassible in the throes of winter.
That has put ranchers Anna and Carson Anderson in a quandary. They live in the Garrett area in remote northern Albany County, where the land is prime for ranching, but there aren’t any good options for getting their children to public school in either Rock River or Laramie.
Their son Emmitt, 7, is well into elementary school. Their daughter Waverly is 4 and will start school soon.
Especially during the winter, the Andersons don’t think it’s practical or safe to try getting their kids to and from the nearest school in Rock River. They’d like a one-room schoolhouse set up for their kids, and any other ranch children who might need it.
They have even offered a meadow on their property as a site for the schoolhouse.
But so far, they haven’t had any luck, despite initial support from the Albany County School District.
And remote learning, while an option, isn’t a great choice either, the Andersons told Cowboy State Daily.
“Having a 7-year-old cowboy sitting in front of a computer screen and trying to learn isn’t going to work,” Carson said.
Rural School Tradition
Carson is a sixth-generation native of north Albany County, and the fifth generation to live on the family ranch. He now runs cattle on about 8,500 acres.
Rural schools have come and gone in the area, he said.
“My great-grandpa went to a rural school in the early 1900s about 10 miles west of here,” he said. “There’s always been gaps of time when the rural schools weren’t open.”
The latest gap in school availability there has so far gone on for a decade since a school at a place called River Bridge shut down, Carson said.
So, the Andersons want to revive the tradition.
It wouldn’t be too complicated, they say. A premanufactured school building could be set up and hooked to utilities in their meadow. And if necessary, living quarters for a teacher could be included.
Thought There Was Hope
Last year, it looked like that was going to happen, Anna said.
On Feb. 9, 2022, the Albany County School District Board of Education approved a school for the Garrett area, she said. And on March 28 of that year, district officials came out for a site tour.
However, she said she got a call a short time later from then Albany County School District Superintendent Jubal Yennie, who told her that the estimated $300,000 budget to make the one-room rural schoolhouse wasn’t feasible, so the district had decided to pull the plug.
Yennie resigned later in 2022.
The Andersons hired an attorney and tried mediation, but that hasn’t panned out yet, Anna said.
Current Albany County schools Superintendent John Goldhardt told Cowboy State Daily that he was informed about the Andersons’ situation when he got on the job. However, because the matter is in litigation, he can’t comment on it.
The Andersons have taken their case to the Wyoming Legislature. They recently hosted a lunch for some legislators and other officials at the ranch to help drum up support while demonstrating just how remote their property is.
“Once you come out here, it’s kind of a no-brainer. You see the extraordinary circumstances and the isolation,” Anna said.
And if $300,000 seems steep for a one-room school that could, at best, serve a handful of rural students, they say it quickly doesn’t when considering the fuel, personnel (including potential overtime), dedicated bus and other costs associated with transporting them at least an hour each way to Rock River every day for nine months.
Funding The ‘Buckle School’
Rep. Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie, is one of the lawmakers who visited the site.
Sherwood told Cowboy State Daily that as she sees it, providing adequate facilities for rural school children is an obligation, per the state’s education mandate.
“Funding, and support for, rural schools are needed to fulfill our constitutional obligations,” she said. “The backbone of our workforce is dependent on Wyoming maintaining ‘a thorough and efficient system of public schools, adequate to the proper instruction of all youth of the state.’ We violate our obligations to taxpayers when we withhold services, in this case, public education.”
Sherwood added that she hopes to help settle things between the Andersons and the school district.
“I look forward to working with the family and school district to identify funding for the ‘Buckle School’ (the school’s possible name),” she said.
Meanwhile, Albany County Road and Bridge Department Superintendent Rob Fisher told Cowboy State Daily that he can attest to just how rough travel is between Garrett and Rock River.
“We call that area ‘Little Siberia,’” he said. “When the wind starts blowing snow, you quickly go to zero visibility.”
“Fetterman Road is the main artery in an out of there during the summer and fall,” he said. “In the winter that road closes, it has too many crosswinds.”
A county road crew based in Rock River handles access during the winter, and it’s a daunting task, Fisher said.
“During the winter they have to go around through Palmer Canyon and Garrett. We call that our ‘mail route,’ and it adds another half hour or 45 minutes to the trip into Rock River, and that’s on good roads,” he said.
“The mail carrier follows our snowplows out there, and then follows them back in, because the wind blows the snow right back over the roads so quickly,” Fisher added.
An Abiding Need
Carson said ranch kids have an abiding need for access to education that isn’t going away. What’s more, having no school nearby makes it difficult for ranchers to recruit employees.
“You’ll never convince people who have families to come out here and work on these ranches if there is no school,” he said.
Anna said she understands that the school district is facing a tight budget. But ranching families that pay significant property tax bills to county coffers should have access to education.
Her family’s struggle could determine how things go for isolated rural families all over Wyoming, she said.
“I understand the need to use limited funding wisely. However, I feel like for everyone in agriculture, many of us who live on remote ranches, if this precedent is allowed, our whole way of life changes,” Anna said. “Public education for ranch kids has always been honored and it is disappointing we have had to fight a legal battle we should not have had to.
“The opportunity for a rural education is a part of our culture that must not be lost.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.