Joan Barron: The Worst Job In State Government

Columnist Joan Barron writes, "As Denver school finance consultant John Augenblick once said: 'School finance is like a Russian novel. It’s long, it’s boring and in the end everyone gets killed.'"

Joan Barron

June 29, 20244 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

CHEYENNE - Wyoming’s school finance program is back in the courts.

The bench trial of the lawsuit filed by the Wyoming Education Association (WEA) and a number of school districts is scheduled to start this month.

The organization claims the state is underfunding schools and should be on a cost-based system.

The judge in charge for the trial is Peter Froelicher of the First Judicial District.

He already has commented on the complexities of the state’s system of grading school facilities and capacities after hearing pre-trial testimony concerning the school construction facilities program.

That program was placed under the leadership of Del McOmie last year as director of the state construction department which merged with the school facilities division.

Wish him good luck.

I have lost track of how many directors have come and gone in the 22 years since its inception as the school facilities commission and later as a division of a department.

The program is a minefield because it fiddles with local control of schools old and new.

It is one of the products of the Wyoming Supreme Courts decision in the Campbell lawsuits of the late 1990’s.

In those landmark cases, the court tossed out as unconstitutional the entire school finance system, academic and facilities.

They were henceforth a state responsibility.

Before the court’s decision or decisions, school districts ran their own school construction programs by bonding for projects financed from local taxes.

The change was wrenching for local schools and school boards.

The new program set square footage guidelines for new school construction based on a school's population. It also had recommendations on auditoriums, swimming pools, track and football fields.

In 2003, the School Facilities Commission (SFC) was getting started. The first director resigned and then Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, picked James (Bubba) Shivler, a former Republican legislator from Teton County to be the new director.

Shivler, who ran a restaurant in Jackson at some point, had been working as a liaison for Freudenthal to the SFC after he lost his bid for re-election to the Legislature.

A retired architect with experience as a contractor, Shivler was qualified for the director’s job.

But he got off to a bad start when four commission members resigned over his appointment as director. The tiff was apparently over who had the authority to make the appointment.

Freudenthal appointed four new members, all Republican, who supported Shiver as director.

Later, the governor said he always knew where Shivler was by the phone calls he received from the community he just left after looking at the schools.

He could sense the tension in the communities, Freudenthal said.

There were many dust-ups — complaints from the local school boards, the district, all over the new state standards on space and maintenance.

Throughout it all, Shiver maintained his humor.

At one stop Shiver he began his meeting with the local school board by displaying an old door to an outhouse. “This is your school’s new front door,” he announced.

Whether the locals found the joke funny is not known. Many of the unhappy residents tried to get their school project going by circumventing the commission and bringing it straight to the Legislature through their representatives.

After three years on the job, Shiver quit to move to Minnesota where he planned to run a bed and breakfast he had bought.

Freudenthal was loyal to the end.

Freudenthal said he realized Shivler was controversial yet he pulled the state away from the brink where the Legislature was dealing individually with school buildings without any standards at all.

"I appreciate the work he has done," Freudenthal said at a news conference. "It is absolutely a no-win position to be director of that commission.”

The commission slogged on, disgorging directors periodically, including some hired from other states.

Today, the WEA recognizes that the state has some beautiful schools but claims there are still schools that are dilapidated or lacking modern cooling equipment, for example, according to a statement from WEA President Grady Hutcherson quoted on the WEA website for the lawsuit.

As Denver school finance consultant John Augenblick once said:

“School finance is like a Russian novel. It’s long, it’s boring and in the end everyone gets killed.”

Contact Joan Barron at 307-632-2534 or

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Joan Barron

Political Columnist