Even former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder’s own staff was concerned about how he was planning a “Stop The Sexualization Of Our Children”political event in 2022.
The private event, which promoted the theory that children are being indoctrinated and over-sexualized with graphic materials in public schools, was originally paid for with state money and planned to be held on public property.
Although the event was eventually moved to a private location, it was still paid for with public money until it was fully reimbursed by private donors more than six months later after it had been challenged as an inappropriate use of public money and facilities.
Questions about how the event was planned is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. As a result of a court order, a trove of public record text messages and emails were recently released revealing what was going on behind the planning of the event and how Wyoming Department of Education staff felt about it.
Those feelings are made clear with department officials saying they were uncomfortable and concerned about it, with one even saying the situation made her feel “icky.”
What Do The Records Say?
The issue of spending public money on the event was the biggest cause of concern among Wyoming Department of Education employees.
The court order to produce messages from WDE Chief Communications Officer Linda Finnerty and Schroeder’s personal cellphones show that at least four members of Schroeder’s leadership team were concerned about how the event was funded, Schroeder’s general leadership and a belief that he was swayed too much by outside influences.
The records produced in response to the court order were provided to Cowboy State Daily by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Cheyenne attorney George Powers and Laramie attorney Rodger McDaniel.
Powers said the release of the new documents, and the case as a whole, shows the government will always have the upper hand when it comes to releasing public documents, and it’s the public’s duty to hold it accountable.
Although the state has repeatedly told the plaintiffs that it already provided all relevant information related to the planning of Schroeder’s event, the newest records release proves that was far from the case. Wyoming legal precedent and federal law state that messages sent on personal devices for public business fall under the purview of public records requests.
About two weeks before Schroeder’s event, Finnerty sent a text to then-Deputy of Public Instruction Chad Auer, telling him that a WDE employee was “really upset” and “stuck in the middle” about Schroeder directing her to book and pay for airline flights, hotel rooms, meals and other accommodations for some of the speakers at his event.
“I could be wrong, but this feels (like) a huge conflict,” Finnerty texted. “Should the WDE be paying for this and do we even have money?”
Finnerty said she told the employee to hold off on the purchases until she could find out more information. Finnerty later said she approved expenses for the people involved in Schroeder’s event but did not know what it was for.
Auer said he and Senior Assistant Attorney General Mackenzie Williams would handle the matter and that Schroeder was “pushing the ethical envelope.”
Finnerty said in all of the staffer’s time with the department, she had never felt that way about an issue.
Auer responded that, “It continues to be a disappointing tenure for the Supt.”
Finnerty then said what particularly bothers her “is that not one of us are people who would ever act in the way he is forcing us to.”
“With all of the things we are having to do in the shadows, it doesn’t match up with any of our character,” she texted. “Icky is the only word I can think of that matches it.”
Six days later, Finnerty said Schroeder was taking a different approach to his event and acknowledged that she and Auer were opposed to using state money to pay for it “to not only to protect the agency, but to protect him.” She also said he had decided to move the event from a state facility to a private location.
Auer similarly said he had a “very positive conversation” with Schroeder before his event. Four days prior, Schroeder was coordinating through text, raising $2,085 to reimburse the department for the public money already spent on it.
Despite her earlier opposition, Finnerty congratulated Schroeder after he gave her a glowing review of how his event went.
The Hill Effect
Also within the texts, Finnerty references a Sept. 19, 2022, meeting Schroeder had scheduled with representatives from No Left Turn in Education, a group that ended up participating in his event.
Finnerty referenced another meeting about two weeks later that was scheduled with Schroeder, members of No Left Turn and former Wyoming Republican Party Chairman and Cheyenne attorney Drake Hill, husband of embattled former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill who Finnerty also thought Schroeder was coordinating with, along with Kevin James, Hill’s former deputy superintendent.
No information had previously been provided about either meeting in previous records requests.
One of the other concerns brought up by Auer and Finnerty was their belief that Schroeder was taking an inordinate amount of advice from the Hills. Finnerty told Wyoming State Board of Education Chair Ryan Fuhrman that Schroeder had admitted he had been working with them for quite some time, “which explains the crazy!”
“Damage control until January,” Auer remarked in response to this belief, referencing the Jan. 2, 2023, date when Schroeder would leave office.
Finnerty then responded that the Hills’ “scare me.”
Auer agreed and said the trio wasn’t looking out for the best interests of the Department of Education.
In another text, Finnerty told Fuhrman that Schroeder was planning his event with these three people and that she had been “working hard to distance” the department from it. Fuhrman responded that he couldn’t think of anything more distracting for the department.
Finnerty then responded that she was doing everything she could to minimize Schroeder’s contact with the department he was running. She also made multiple references to a press release she didn’t want Schroeder to see about a separate WDE event.
“Strange part is he started out great, but somewhere took quite a turn,” Finnerty said.
Fuhrman agreed and questioned, “who let him talk to Cindy Hill?”
“Glad it’s only a few months of distraction,” he said.
What’s Schroeder Saying?
Schroeder referenced these points in a personal text where he complained that the department will “throw up obstacles with anything they view as having a conservative agenda.”
Schroeder also made a few other derisive comments to state Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, about certain WDE and local school district campaigns.
In another personal text, Schroeder said that he was planning the event with conservative education advocacy group Moms For Liberty, which various texts substantiate.
In a text to Kathy Scigliano, head of the Cheyenne chapter of Moms For Liberty, Schroeder said the press is “going to try and justify, minimize, rationalize and excuse, and we want to be fully prepared to respond to all their typical questions and counter all their predictable objections” at his event.
In a text sent to Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, Schroeder said, “We don’t want this to be political campaign deal,” but rather an “exposure of the crap being defended in our schools.”
When the first public promotion of Schroeder’s event surfaced on social media and text messages, WDE leadership expressed surprise about its posting and wanted to figure out how it got released.
In one text, Finnerty said Schroeder “seems to have gone out to other pirate groups to send it out.”
Chief Academic Officer Shelley Hamel said she was forwarded a promotion for the event from a district superintendent who expressed “concern that this could ‘become a catalyst for events across the state.’”
In a group chat, Finnerty presumed that the people connected to the Hills were putting out information about the event and Hamel speculated that they were writing documents for Schroeder in his name.
“It seems he understands our resistance and is sending out his/their agenda as the WDE regardless,” Hamel texted.
Finnerty responded that “you are so right.”
WDE Chief Operations Officer Trent Carroll said the promotion “would be better with Cindy, Drake and Kevin’s name on it.”
In another text, Auer speculated that Schroeder probably forwarded a staff email he received about his press conference to Drake Hill. Finnerty speculated the same in a text two days later when she said Schroeder had forwarded an email to his personal email address so he could forward it on to Drake Hill without her seeing he had done so.
“I am pretty sure that Brian has just started doing everything through his personal email, he’s barely touching his work one,” Finnerty added.
Finnerty and Auer were right as email records show Schroeder forwarded the staff email to the Hills and James, and commented, “The push back has begun … let me know a good time to talk today about this.”
When Powers submitted his first request for information, Carroll remarked, “Can we provide contact info for Drake or Kevin in our response?”
Finnerty texted a “laugh” response and said, “This could get even more icky.”
The records also show that staff believed Schroeder was spending too much time outside the office.
Finnerty also expressed frustration throughout the fall and early winter that Schroeder was not focusing on transitioning his duties over to current Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder and that he wasn’t using his work email anymore.
To this comment, Auer posted a turbo jet meme. A few weeks before his event, Schroeder took a trip to Rwanda.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.