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USDA Repeats Demand For Biden Administration Gender Ideology Policies

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

In the face of resistance from more than half the states in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday restated its demand for public schools to adopt policies friendly to federal gender ideology.  

The USDA sent an email Thursday to Wyoming and a handful of other Western states, repeating that schools receiving federal funds for school lunches will be in violation of civil rights laws unless they update their non-discrimination policies to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

“State agencies and program operators who fail to take these actions will be in noncompliance with civil rights requirements,” reads USDA’s latest email, which was sent to the Wyoming Department of Education. 

It also was sent to the Wyoming Department of Health, the Department of Family Services, the Women, Infants and Children’s program, and to the state’s nutrition programs consultant.



The USDA is insisting that states adopt discrimination policies to protect people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or be in violation of civil rights law. Officials in Wyoming and some other states are concerned about the edict because of recent court rulings that indicate schools that label bathrooms only as “boys” and “girls” are guilty of discrimination.    

Wyoming, which receives roughly $40 million a year in USDA school lunch and other food funding, is among the 26 states whose attorneys general wrote directly to President Joe Biden on June 14, demanding a retraction of the mandate.  

Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder also disputed the update publicly, especially in light of recent court ruling deeming biological-sex bathroom categorizations as a form of gender identity discrimination.  

Schroeder this week urged the state to fund its own school lunches, to dodge USDA oversight.  

“Vulnerable children will not go unfed in Wyoming, and we will not allow boys in girls’ locker rooms,” said Schroeder in a Wednesday statement. “We categorically reject gender ideology and will not bow to the coercive will of a bully government.”  

‘Voluntary’ 

Tamara Earley, USDA regional civil rights officer, wrote in the email that, for agencies like the Wyoming Department of Education, the non-discrimination statement change is “required.”  

“The statement must be used verbatim and in accordance with the timeframes provided,” she wrote.  

According to the letter by the attorneys general, the deadline for the change is Aug. 3.  

All schools must also order posters depicting the new discrimination guidelines.   

However, Earley’s letter continues, the agency is aiming for “voluntary” compliance.  

“In these instances, (USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services) aims to bring state agencies into compliance using voluntary measures, working closely and collaboratively to achieve this goal,” she said.  

The letter encourages schools and other agencies to work with the FNS Civil Rights Division “as you ensure compliance with… protections against sex discrimination.”  

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Superintendent Says Wyo Has Cash For Lunches, Can Ignore Fed Gender Mandate, Gov Urges Caution

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21325

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming has the money to feed school children in need of lunches, so the state need not comply with a federal mandate espousing gender ideology, the Wyoming Department of Education announced Wednesday.

“Treasurer Curt Meier and a host of Wyoming’s state leaders have assured me that Wyoming has the money to cover these lunches,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder. “We can cut ties with these federal lunch dollars and still provide for Wyoming kids – it only requires two things: the will of the Wyoming people, and the determination of Wyoming’s governing leaders. If we don’t fight this, we enable it.” 

But Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s office is urging caution, saying the federal mandate could impact a lot more than school lunches.

“The Governor believes that any discussion to withdraw from its funding streams should be considered by the incoming Legislature,” said Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for Gordon.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 5 announced it was linking its school lunch funding, including $40 million to Wyoming, to a requirement that all funded schools update their non-discrimination policies to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Wyoming’s leaders bristled, especially in light of recent federal court ruling that said only having bathrooms labeled for boys and girls is a form of gender identity discrimination.  

“I immediately opposed this action in the strongest terms possible on legal, political and moral grounds,” Schroeder said Wednesday.

Attorney General Bridget Hill and 25 other attorneys general also disputed the mandate, pointing to the fact federal officials failed to collect public input prior to its development.

“Undoubtedly, the USDA will face a flurry of lawsuits once rules made pursuant to the Executive Order are promulgated,” said Schroeder, referencing a January 2021 executive order by President Joe Biden advocating for additional LGBTQ protections.  

Money On Hand 

When faced with the ultimatum, Schroeder in early June said that Wyoming would have to comply with the mandate until the Wyoming Legislature scraped together the funding to cover school lunches historically covered by the USDA.  

In the 2018-2019 school year, Wyoming schools gave out 3,017,251 free lunches and 918,463 reduced-price lunches.  

But now, Schroeder’s Wednesday announcement advocates for the state to cover the cost of lunches if it needs to remove itself from the USDA program.

Prior to Schroeder’s announcement, Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, said last week that he would seek ways to fund the school lunches as well.  

“I call on all Wyomingites to appeal to their local legislators concerning the liberating prospects of severing our dependence on federal dollars,” said Schroeder. “Washington has shown its hand, and will never stop at forcing its woke agenda and ever-changing value system on people who refuse to embrace it. Be fully assured, this is not the end – they will be back.”  

Schroeder listed concerns with issues such as forced usage of alternative or cross-gender pronouns and boys playing in girls sports.

The Wyoming Legislature is constitutionally obligated to fund public schools, though it is allowed to accept outside funding.  

“I will support (and encourage) all efforts to begin the process of cutting ties with federal funds,” while upholding the Constitutional mandate to support education, Schroeder said.  

Schroeder clarified that the withdrawal from federal lunch funding may have to be a “phased endeavor” but said it is “doable” and he is committed to proceed “in a prudent manner.”  

Lastly, Schroeder added, he does not intend his statement to call the Wyoming Legislature into a special session.  

“But at some point, we need to move on this or we will forever be under the feds’ thumb, beholden to a controlling political mindset that wants to own every aspect of our lives, including our belief system,” he said. “This is a defining moment for the identity and future of Wyoming and its schools. We must break free if we are to be free.” 

The Wyoming Legislature’s regular session convenes in January 2023. 

Governor’s Caution

Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday said that he disagrees wholly with the mandate, calling it “improperly crafted and completely unnecessary” and emphasized that the Wyoming Constitution already requires fair treatment for all.

Gordon, who asked Hill to send the letter demanding a retraction from Biden, vowed to oppose the federal mandate and study ways to maintain local control.

However, Gordon’s office also said it’s too soon to pledge state funds to cover the differences, since the sweeping change in the national Title IX Civil Rights language on which the USDA predicated its mandate could affect much more than school lunches.

“We are already having discussion within the executive branch about the true impact and costs associated with this proposed USDA rule, which could go much beyond the food assistance program,” said Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman in a text to Cowboy State Daily. “We could be talking about a much higher dollar figure, as Title IX funding extends well beyond school nutrition programs.”

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Wyoming High Schools Move Toward Replacing Grass With Artificial Turf 

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Since the mid-1960s, more and more sports teams have made the decision to replace grass fields with artificial turf. The fields require less maintenance, and an argument can be made that the surface is friendlier to players, resulting in fewer sports injuries.

Wyoming schools have also been turning over grass fields in favor of AstroTurf (so named because the first artificial turf field was installed at the Houston Astrodome).

The Spike Vannoy Field at Cody High School this summer is undergoing a replacement of the stadium’s first artificial turf, installed twelve years ago, at a cost of around $550,000.

“We’re getting a much higher quality field than we had in the past,” said Tony Hult, Activities Director for Park County School District No. 6 in Cody. “The other one just had pellets in it. This one has sand and rubber pellets in it. They think it’s better traction, it’s better on joints, which, they’re all way better on joints than just a hard football field.”

The Work Begins



At the beginning of June, crews removed the old field – all 87 rolls, each 15 feet wide and 80 feet long and weighing about 2,500 pounds – and prepared the field to receive the new material from FieldTurf USA. 

Hult told Cowboy State Daily the district decided 12 years ago to move away from a grass field and install artificial turf.

“Our maintenance director was a rock star on researching and reaching out to all kinds of different companies to find out what kind we think would be best for us,” Hult said. “So he researched everything and came back with a proposal.”

Maintenance

Of the 65 public school football fields in the state, 25 of them – a little more than a third – have replaced grass with artificial turf, which Hult said is much simpler to maintain than a grass field.

“We haven’t done anything with it in 12 years,” Hult said. “You know, we’ve had some snowstorms, and we’ve had to plow snow off of it for a football game or actually even a soccer game a couple times. But otherwise we haven’t spent one dime on it.”

One of the lesser-known benefits of a turf field, according to Hult, is fewer injuries to players – and officials. 

“I just know we’ve had way fewer injuries,” he said, pointing out that the turf, which is laid on a foundation made of a mix of sand and rubber pellets, is easier on athletes than hard-packed ground, especially in cold weather. 

“And it’s easier on our officials,” he said. “You’ve got officials that are getting up in age, and they’re able to do it longer because they’re running on a softer turf than on hard ground.” 

Field vs Grass



In addition, Hult said the grass field was much more difficult to take care of.

“First of all, with city water, we couldn’t water it after the first part of September,” he said. “So our field became like concrete. It was just hard to grow grass out there. Our soil wasn’t very good.”

Additionally, when it did rain, the field would become heavily damaged.

“I remember distinctly, one of my first years here we played Sheridan, and we had a storm, and all the cleats were out there and it was a mud bath,” Hult recalled. “And then the next day it was frozen after that. We couldn’t grow the grass.” 

Hult pointed out that the one-time cost of the artificial turf as compared to the annual cost of maintaining a grass field, on paper, is a wash.

“We estimated we spent about $50,000 a year working on that field in the past,” Hult said. And so it cost us in the $750,000 range for that first turf. This one was not near as much because we didn’t have to do all the dirt work and everything. I think this one was in like the $550- $560,000 range. So you divide that by 12 (years).”

Community Support

The chairperson for the Park County School District No. 6 school board said investing such a large amount for sports programs was a decision supported by the board and the community.

“The importance of our athletics and activities at (the school district) was a really big deal,” said Board Chair Brandi Nelson, explaining that when faced with the need for severe budget cuts several years ago, the community came out in support of athletics. 

“You know, we serve close to 100 football players in a given season,” she said. “We had 40 boys soccer players this spring, and I don’t know how many girls soccer players we had. It’s just important to the community that our kids have facilities, so that they have these extracurricular things that they can do.” 

Nelson said the staff made every effort to keep costs manageable.

“(Maintenance Director) Terry Gardenhire, who just retired, did some work in looking at (whether) we had any cushion there in that fund that we could use,” said Nelson. “And he came back to us and said, ‘Yes, we’ve got some wiggle room,’ because (there are) projects that come in under budget.”

Not Classroom Funds

Nelson explained that facilities maintenance funds are not tied to education, so by purchasing a half-million dollar football field, money has not been diverted from the classroom.

“If you amortize that out over the 10-year estimate, you know, it’s $50,000 a year,” said Nelson. “It’s not easy to maintain good level grass, you know, over time they can get uneven, and it is hard on the athletes. We felt like it was justified, if you looked at the cost we would have to do to do that.”

“I thought I was going to have to raise some money for it again,” said Hult. “There had been talk, the board had said the last couple of years, ‘Tony, we may need you to raise money,’ but our maintenance director had saved money and budgeted for it within his maintenance budget. So we didn’t have to go raise money from the community or any of that kind of stuff.”

But the unseen benefit, Hult said, is in the health of the players.

“I’ll tell you, when you think of how many kids we have played football out there, and the minimal amount of injuries in comparison that I just know we normally would have, I think it’s been worth it just for that,” Hult said.

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Riverton School Officials Defend Decision To Ban Cell Phones From School

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
clair@cowboystatedaily.com

In banning cell phones from middle school classrooms and bathrooms, counselors hope to minimize the social and mental wounds that can, with other causes, produce school shooters.  

Riverton Middle School (RMS) last week was skewered on social media over a school-wide policy change banning cell phone access by students except between classes, on the lunch hour and in the case of medically necessary exceptions. Many parents and community members worried that the ban would cut children’s access to help in the event of a school shooting.  

But a long-term effect of childhood smartphone dependence, along with other factors, could actually worsen the very conditions that lead to desperate acts like school shootings, RMS counselors told Cowboy State Daily on Monday.  

‘Dumber’ 

The counselors in May studied the work of renowned neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry. Perry’s research linked a lack of in-person connectedness with tragic mental outcomes.  

“(Perry) talked about the lack of connections in schools and how when people talk over social media and Internet and cell phones, it’s a really shallow connection,” said Shayla McNiven, Riverton Middle School counselor. “He even directly addresses the school shootings being from a lack of connectedness with your environment and your school.”  

Reflecting on school shootings and childhood trauma, Perry told the Sun Magazine in 2016 that fear is the most common reason people’s brains “shut down,” along with exhaustion, hunger, and thirst.  

But “busy-ness” from smartphone stimuli and distraction also shuts down human higher reasoning, “making you dumber… distracting you from thinking,” said Perry, adding that a person constantly distracted can “end up believing anything (they) are told.”  

New York Attorney General Letitia James in May announced in the wake of a mass shooting in Buffalo that she is investigating social media platforms and their role in shooters’ psychology. Forbes reported days later that the rise of social media has been linked with a decrease in human empathy.  

‘Disconnected’ 

McNiven was joined by Tara Collins, another RMS counselor, who said for kids, practicing “genuine, face-to-face communication and building those relationships in-person” is vital to their future well-being. A failure to cultivate those skills, she continued, can cause a rift between the child and his or her environment, which worsens dependence on social media relationships, which in turn worsens the child’s relationship with the people that surround him or her daily.  

“If they feel rejected, disconnected, that can lead to situations like school shooters or suicides: so many issues, including anxiety and depression and low self-esteem,” said Collins. 

She said that the more severe a student’s sense of disconnection from the tangible environment at school, the more he or she may resort to “shallow” online relationships, however anonymous or distant those may be.   

“How is this connected to preventing a crisis?” Collins continued, saying of the objections voiced to the cell phone ban, the most common was parents’ fears about not being able to reach their children during school shooting events.  

“This (ban) is hopefully something that can even – hopefully – make that not a possibility, if we can just focus on being present and building relationships, and avoiding conflicts and issues with peers,” she said.  

McNiven and Collins both acknowledged that the social problems caused by constant smartphone use in kids won’t go away just because phones aren’t allowed in class this fall.  

Many conflicts, fights and bullying “start online” but end at school, said McNiven, adding that the majority of middle-school students have smartphone access at home as well as at school.  

“We can’t police everything,” Collins agreed. “We can’t be outside of school. But maybe we can make a difference here.” 

Smartphones and social media culture aren’t the only factors producing school shooters, the counselors said.  

“I think it has contributed but I don’t think it’s the causing factor,” said McNiven, adding, “it definitely contributes to (the) shootings and to mental health issues in general.”  

Bullying, Sexualization

The effects of social media and internet exposure in kids are diverse.  

Online dating “drama,” the taking and leaking of explicit photographs, intense arguments, bullying, exploitation, data blackmail, chronic distraction, stress, consumerism, bodily self-loathing, screen addiction and sleep deprivation were just a few of the smartphone effects the counselors saw in students in their daily work.  

The middle school serves sixth- through eighth-grade students.   

Even though some community members railed against the ban on phones in bathrooms as well as classrooms, counselors said they knew the bathroom ban to be important.

It’s there the counselors said, that they’ve seen issues with students taking phones into bathrooms to take “inappropriate pictures” or to fulfill an online peer challenge to post a video of oneself vandalizing school property.  

In his own interview Friday, RMS principal Aziz Waheed had expressed frustration with students’ use of social video-share app TikTok to bully their peers not just in the hallway, but across the entire internet. Waheed said he regretted that pre-teens already were laboring under social media “pressures.”  

Yet somehow, McNiven said, “It’s difficult to pry (smartphones) from their hands.”  

“It’s like a limb,” Collins quipped.  

Pseudo-Reality 

Even adults struggle with impulse control; with not checking one’s phone every time it buzzes and with maintaining courtesy in online arguments, the counselors said.  

While teachers work with all their students every school day, the counselors often work with students who have been referred to them due to social problems. And many of these, said McNiven, are living in “pseudo-reality.”  

Whether it’s a cluster of profile-only relationships or the constant pressures of an online game, being stuck in a fake reality at this age damages the arc of natural development, because children are still “developing their world and what they think is normal,” said McNiven.  

Children may not be ready to carry the whole world in their pockets.  

The National Library of Medicine this year announced that from 2009 to 2019, adolescent depression rose from 8.1% to 15.8%, with teenage girls accounting for most of the spike.  

Facebook expanded membership to the general public in 2006. Twitter went mainstream in 2007. Instagram surpassed 1 million registrations in 2010. TikTok launched officially in 2018.  

“You’re expecting these teenagers to have adult reactions and the judgement to make good decisions, and adults can’t even do that (online),” McNiven said, adding that the things people do online “have a lot of real-world consequences, that when you don’t’ have long-term thinking, you don’t think about.” 

‘Please Monitor’ 

Parents should be vigilant, said the counselors.  

Both McNiven and Collins said they recognize that smartphones have their benefits and can help kids navigate activities and other logistics.  

However, parents should monitor children’s smartphone use, internet searches, photograph files and time of use. 

The counselors speculated that a thorough search of a child’s phone might surprise some parents.  

“You have a right to the phone that you paid for,” said McNiven.  

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Rivertonites Spar Over Student Cell Phone Ban

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Photo by Clair McFarland
21151

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

A ban on cell phones in classrooms at a Riverton school is being met with strong objections in the face of a recent rash of school shootings nationwide.  

The Fremont County School District 25 Board of Trustees on Tuesday evening voted to approve a rule change at Riverton Middle School, requiring that students keep their cell phones in their lockers, except during the lunch break.  

Many Facebook commenters to media reports objected to the rule, saying that students should have their phones on hand in case of an active shooter situation.  

Those in favor of the rule, however, touted the value of undistracted learning and the importance of maintaining children’s innocence, in a culture in which most cell phones have Internet capabilities.  

Opportunity To Protect Themselves 

One Facebook commenter opposed to the rule was Casper City Councilman Bruce Knell, a former Fremont County resident who still has two children attending school in a district that neighbors Riverton’s. 

Knell’s chief concern is of children not being able to reach their parents or authorities during an “invasion,” he told Cowboy State Daily.  

“I understand the teachers’ ideology, and not wanting disruption in the classroom,” said Knell. “But there are better ways to handle it.”  

Knell reflected on the sterner disciplinary measures of his own school days and said in that generation, teachers seemed to have fewer problems removing disruptions or disciplining students for disruptive behavior.   

“Maybe on the third offense they (shouldn’t be) able to bring their phone anymore,” Knell said. “But just to take them out of the schools and strip those kids of the opportunity to protect themselves is just completely inappropriate in my opinion.”  

Vance Countryman, a longtime attorney from the area, also commented on a media report, saying that distractions are a small price to pay for safety.  

“Imagine for a moment, a shooting took place and during the investigation we find out that a number of our children are dead. Imagine several of the survivors report that they had the ability to call for help but they had no phone,” said Countryman in a Facebook comment. “The simple solution would be for people to not shoot children, but we don’t seem to be able to teach that lesson either.”  

‘More Chaos’ 

Lynette Jeffres, Chairwoman of the Fremont County District 25 school board, said the district and the middle school both take student safety “very seriously.” 

“If, God forbid, we have an active shooter event and we’ve got 100 kids on their phones and they call their moms and dads to come get them, we could potentially have an extra 200 people on site, causing more chaos and more disruption as we try to handle the situation,” said Jeffres.  

She emphasized that the school is guarded by its own school resource officer, additional officers can respond to situations quickly and there are rigorous protocols in place to address a shooting event.  

Rule Already Used 

The school’s principal Aziz Waheed said the rule change isn’t as groundbreaking as the public response would suggest.  

Waheed said a teacher-imposed rule against cell phones in classrooms during learning hours has been in place in the sixth and seventh grades for a few semesters, though not in the eighth grade.  

RMS serves sixth- through eighth-grade students.  

He emphasized that students will be able to check their phones at their lockers between classes, and they may have their phones on hand during the 54-minute lunch break.  

In-class communication, said Waheed, is still possible because each student has a Chromebook with email access and because teachers will have their phones.  

“I think having primary points of contact just to manage the situation would be beneficial. Our teachers will still have their cell phones for that reason,” he said.  

Protecting Their Innocence 

Teachers and administrators wanted the phones rule added to the school handbook at the middle school because children’s educational experience and their innocence are at risk, said Waheed.  

“The problem lies with kids – and this is really the majority – that have internet access with no stipulations, no oversight in terms of what kids are looking at,” Waheed said. “Even if you’re policing your child quite well and making sure they’re seeing things you feel are appropriate for their age level, their buddies may not have those restrictions.”   

Waheed said he hopes that limiting that smartphone access will encourage children to learn social skills, excel in school, make friends, and enjoy their education, sports, and school clubs.  

He also said phone devices without internet access and with a limited contacts catalog “make sense” for children in this age group.  

Despite the social media controversy, there also has been an outpouring of positivity following the rule change, said Waheed.  

“We’ve had a lot of people reaching out, supporting us, saying ‘thank you. We appreciate you trying to preserve innocence and let our kids be kids, and not fall into the pressures that TikTok and Instagram bring,’” he said, adding, “We’ll still have our fair share of dealing with that – it’s not going to go away, and that’s fine – but trying to remember the overall goal of school: it’s not to create entertainment content.” 

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Wyoming Attorney General Demands USDA Back Down On Gender ID Mandate

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20992

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
clair@cowboystatedaily.com

Wyoming’s top attorney and her counterparts in 25 other states on Tuesday urged President Joe Biden to withdraw what they deemed an “unlawful” mandate linking school lunch funding to gender identity ideology.

Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill and the other attorneys general demanded a retraction from Biden of the policy that would require schools and other agencies receiving USDA funds to adopt rules against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

“By vastly expanding the concept of ‘discrimination on the basis of sex’ to include gender identity and sexual orientation, the (USDA announcement) guidance does much more than offer direction,” reads a June 14 letter to Biden and the USDA sent by by the attorneys general. 

“It imposes new – and unlawful – regulatory measures on state agencies and operators… and the inevitable result is regulatory chaos that would threaten the effective provision of essential nutritional services to some of our most vulnerable citizens,” the letter said.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 5 announced that all state and local agencies funded by its sub-agency, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), “must” update their non-discrimination policies to include new provisions for gender identity and sexual orientation.  

Wyoming’s Department of Education falls under the mandate’s affected category, as it receives about $40 million per fiscal year from FNS. Cowboy State Daily had previously reported the figure at $90 million per year, however, that figure represented pledges over multiple years. 

Which Bathroom? 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder and multiple Wyoming lawmakers rebuked the USDA following its announcement in the light of a court ruling in the case “Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board.” In that case, the court found that labeling school bathrooms only as “boys” or “girls” was a form of gender identity discrimination.  

But the USDA’s announcement itself deferred to Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects workplace employees from discrimination for being gay or transgender.  

‘Flouts The Rule of Law’ 

Hill and the other attorneys general disputed the federal agency’s use of Bostock in this mandate, as the USDA framed its mandate as a reinterpretation of Title IX – a different portion of the Civil Rights code that was originally designed to support fairness in girls’ and women’s school sports.  

Administrative Procedures Act requirements dictate that the government must afford the public the opportunity to comment when making substantive policy changes. But the USDA attempted to “circumvent” that safety net by masking a major policy invention as a mere “clarification,” the letter said.  

“The (USDA) Guidance flouts the rule of law, relies on patently incorrect legal analysis that is currently under scrutiny in the federal courts, and was issued without giving the States the requisite opportunity to be heard,” the letter said.  

“While we are always open to working with your Administration to resolve these matters, under the present circumstances we are constrained to ask that you direct (USDA) Secretary Vilsack and the (USDA) to rescind this Guidance.” 

The letter also was signed by the attorneys general of Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Indiana, North Dakota, Kansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Carolina, Missouri, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, West Virginia, Virginia, and Texas.

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Legislators Disagree On When State Can Say No To Feds On Gender ID Mandates With School Lunches

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20949

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

To dodge new federal gender identity mandates in schools, Wyoming may need to fund its own school lunch programs, but legislators disagree on how quickly that can be accomplished.   

“Our financial situation is a long way from being stable right now,” said Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee. “I think we have to be very cautious on anything that we do that costs us more money or puts an extra burden on the financial situation of the state.”  

Paxton told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that he didn’t think Wyoming could budget to pay for its own school lunch program by the next legislative session, which begins January 2023, but the shift could be possible eventually.  

“There’s certainly a cost involved in it, but I would not say it’s completely out of the picture,” he said.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 5 announced that all state and local agencies funded by its sub-agency, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), would be required to update their non-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected groups.  

The Wyoming Department of Education receives about $90 million a year in FNS funds to pay for school lunches.   

The mandate could require Wyoming schools to provide transgender bathroom accommodations, as it comes in the wake of court decisions that requiring bathroom use according to biological sex is a form of gender identity discrimination.

Paxton said state lawmakers already “have made a few inroads” toward having the state pay for school lunches, such as accommodating local ranchers’ food donations to schools. 

These efforts have been due to what Paxton called long-lasting controversy around the school lunch program predating gender identity debates. For example, he said, school lunches were considered more nutritious before the federal government took over the program.  

But growing problems for public schools, such as a statewide teacher and school staff shortage, also demand the state’s financial support now, Paxton said.  

“We need to see how this whole process develops across the nation before we make too many moves,” he said.   

Once a main source of school funding, coal no longer supports Wyoming schools, and other natural resources used for to pay for K-12 schools have been hampered by federal mineral leasing and permitting restrictions.  

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder on June 8 issued a statement saying the state would have to comply with the USDA’s mandate temporarily until the Legislature could fund the school lunch programs itself. He urged citizens to communicate with legislators on the subject. 

Bathroom Rules a Local Issue 

In his experience with Wyoming schools, bullying and discrimination aren’t tolerated against any identity group, said Paxton. But maintaining binary bathrooms and athletics teams, he said, is “a totally different issue (from bullying) in my mind.”  

Decisions on bathroom accommodations, he said, should be made by local school boards in their own respective districts, not at the federal or even the state level.  

Funding Re-Vamp 

Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, who is a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, countered Paxton’s approach, saying he thinks it’s feasible for Wyoming to take on its own school lunch funding, but it won’t be easy.  

About 12% of Wyoming school operation revenues last year were from federal sources.  

Neiman said that, as the least populous state in the Union, “I think we can figure out how to make sure our kids get fed and cared for, and I think people in the state of Wyoming would support that.”  

He said he’s willing to pursue the shift to state funding for school lunches in the upcoming legislative session and would involve Wyoming Treasurer Curt Meier in discussions to produce a bill to that end.   

There may be some hard budget decisions to make, said Neiman, pointing as an example to Utah’s school system, which charges the public to attend many extra-curricular events.  

“We need to stop and have a very serious conversation about the things we need versus the things we want,” he said. “It’s going to take some desire on the part of the people.”  

Neiman also strongly condemned the USDA for using school lunch funding for what he described as “social engineering.”  

“I believe that’s wrong on every level. That’s not their job,” he said.  

Not Ready To Dump Fed Food 

It’s better to take the lunch funds now and argue about them later, according to Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, who is also a member of the Education Committee.  

Brown, like Paxton, said he believes that dumping the food programs now would be premature, and could “hold our kids and their stomachs hostage.”  

The Legislature as a whole isn’t likely to shift all school-lunch funding responsibility to the state in the next session, said Brown, because the state has “horrible budget outlooks.”  

Still, he added, there could be some lively debate over it.  

Lawsuit Likelier 

A state lawsuit challenging the USDA’s new rules seems more likely than a state funding model shift, said Brown. However, he noted that’s a discussion for Gov. Mark Gordon and Schroeder to have.  

“I do think it’s worth the battle, personally,” said Brown.  

The legislator said the federal government has “overstepped its bounds” and seems to be cloaking a “social justice issue” in school lunch funding.  

“It’s abhorrent to me,” said Brown.  

But despite that, he added, “I will not stand back and watch our kids go to school hungry.” 

No Weigh-In From Committee Dems 

Rep. Cathy Connolly and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, both of Laramie and both Democratic delegates to the Education Committee, did not respond immediately to voicemails requesting comment. 

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Schroeder: Wyo To Comply With Fed Gender Mandate Until State Funds School Lunches

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

After condemning a federal action linking school lunch funds to gender-ideology accommodations, Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder on Wednesday said Wyoming may need to comply until the Wyoming Legislature supplements the federal funds.

Schroeder “strongly objects to this latest example of federal overreach – and will continue to lead Wyoming’s effort to push back against Washington D.C.,” the Wyoming Department of Education said in a statement Wednesday.

The U.S Department of Agriculture on May 5 mandated that all local and state agencies funded by its sub-department, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), must update non-discrimination statements to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. The decision comes in the wake of court rulings categorizing binary bathroom requirements as discrimination.

Although local school districts can opt out of FNS funds, Wyoming’s education system as a whole might need to comply with the new mandate, Schroeder said, adding that it would do so with caution.

“While the Superintendent vigorously pursues political and legal options to oppose federal overreach, the (department) will work to maintain the flow of federal funds to support children in Wyoming,” the statement said. 

“Until the Wyoming Legislature takes substantive action to allocate state funds to cover the numerous federally-funded programs in Wyoming, the (department) has little choice but to work within the framework mandated by politicians in Washington D.C.,” it said.

The state’s education department has received about $90 million annually in FNS funds in the past two fiscal years.

The next session of the Wyoming Legislature is slated for January 2023.

The state department of education said “many people in Wyoming will disagree” with the USDA’s philosophy and political behavior. 

 It encouraged citizens “to respectfully engage legislators and other elected officials as they see appropriate.”

In a June 3 statement, Schroeder called the mandate “morally repugnant,” and “another breathtaking display of political ideology run amok.”

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Wyo Education Head “Astounded” At Mandate Linking School Lunch Dollars To Gender Identity Policies

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder on Friday said it was “disheartening and astounding” to learn of new federal mandate linking school lunch dollars to gender identity policies. 

“I wish to denounce in the strongest terms possible, the Biden Administration’s recent reinterpretation of the USDA’s Title IX funding,” Schroeder said in a statement. 

All state and local organizations and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs funded by the department’s Food and Nutrition Service must update non-discrimination statements to include sexual orientation and gender identity protections, according to a May 5 USDA announcement. 

The state’s education department has received about $90 million annually in Food and Nutrition Service grants in the past two fiscal years.

Under some federal court precedents, binary bathroom and locker room requirements in schools have been deemed gender identity discrimination. 

Title IX is an addition to federal education amendments guaranteeing civil rights protections based on qualifiers such as race, religion, sex and age. 

The Wyoming Department of Education’s non-discrimination statement aligns with traditional Title IX readings but doesn’t include provisions for gender identity and sexual orientation.

‘Cynical’

“Though unsurprising, it is nonetheless both disheartening and astounding that our federal government could become so cynical as to tie the school lunches of little kids to its ever-relentless agenda of social engineering,” Schroeder said. 

The superintendent rebuked the federalization of school policies to include gender ideology-based changes as symptoms of “arrogance and disrespect.”

“This is not about discrimination, it is about control and manipulation, it is about forcing post-modernist thinking on people who refuse to embrace the same, and it is about imposing a value system on the majority of Wyomingites whose faith or common sense inform them differently,” said Schroeder. 

“It is, on its face, an egregious, albeit subtle, form of discrimination in its own right,” he said, adding that he hoped Wyoming would “stand up” to the announced mandate. 

Sex Discrimination Complaints

A USDA spokesman on Friday reiterated the requirement for all state and local agencies funded by the Food and Nutrition Services to update their non-discrimination policies with the two new descriptors. 

But the spokesmen then indicated that a much narrower purpose is intended than the language suggests. 

“The change gives recourse for LGBTQI+ Americans who experience discrimination by or within a Food and Nutrition Services Program. If discrimination does occur, that person can now file a complaint of sex discrimination – nothing more,” the spokesman said in an email to Cowboy State Daily. 

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Cody School District Says No To Banning “The Color Purple”

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By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com

The Cody School District’s Educational Resource Complaint Committee resisted a push to ban two books on Thursday.

The committee’s decisions to oppose recommending banning “The Color Purple” and “How to be an Antiracist” from the high school library, came in response to complaints made about the books by Cody residents Carol Armstrong and Jim Vetter. These books both discuss the topic of race and inequality in America.

Armstrong levied the complaint against “The Color Purple,” a 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning book written by Alice Walker. The book is a fictional novel of an African American woman in the 1940s American South. 

Within her complaint, Armstrong, 88, mentioned she has also found around 100 books she deems offensive within the school library.

Book-banning campaigns are nothing new to the Cody School District. In 2018 the school board removed “A Bad Boy Can be Good for a Girl” from its shelves. Earlier this spring, Cody resident Sheila Leach filed a complaint about the book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which the committee did not recommend banning.  

Under school policy, the committee makes a recommendation to the school board about what action to take on a particular book, but the board does not have to act unless the complainant files an appeal of the committee’s decision. 

Leach has filed an appeal on her book, which is scheduled to be considered by the school board on Tuesday. She said she has little faith the board will decide to remove the book because of its current makeup. 

Armstrong criticized “The Color Purple” as being vulgar, depressing and unhelpful for growing minds. She also contends the book to be pornographic in nature because it discusses rape and incest. 

“The decisions being made by our library about the type of books that are being selected and placed in our libraries is critical and will undoubtedly affect the minds and attitudes of our future leaders and citizens,” Armstrong said.

District Librarian Jennisen Lucas disagreed in a speech given before the committee, saying it’s the responsibility of parents to discuss and supervise the books their children are checking out from the library.

The school currently has a system that alerts parents anytime their children check a book out of the library, however this system will adjust next school year so that parents must “opt-in” to the notification system to get these alerts.

Despite the book winning numerous awards, being turned into a Broadway play and major motion picture, Armstrong said these accolades do not make it appropriate for adolescent reading.

“Is it any wonder that there is a rise in disturbed and confused youth in our schools because of gender ideology and messages that are being sent to our young impressionable kids,” Armstrong said.

Lucas said “vulgar” language was only used occasionally in “The Color Purple” and “many reviews show” the book as recommended for readers 15-16 years old and up, and sometimes even younger age groups. 

“When librarians are looking at that, they’re taking a look at what various published reviews are saying,” she said. Lucas is the president of the American Association of School Librarians and said the trend of book banning is rampant right now, with some groups proposing bans of more than 50 books at time and librarians facing death threats related to the effort.

Lucas said even though these books may be challenging reads for young adults, she said they provide valuable perspective for students in Cody, a community she finds has many members who are “backwards racially,” and possessing a “racist ideation.”  

Even though she doesn’t have children or grandchildren in the school district, Armstrong previously taught elementary school, and mentioned the tax dollars she has spent for 60 years funding the Cody School District as part of her justification for her complaint. Since the Korean War, she said, she has witnessed a “continual moral decline in our society and slow unraveling of our culture.”

“As a taxpayer, I’m saddened our school does not hold our students to a higher standard,” Armstrong said. 

The committee voted 9-0 against banning both books. This nine-person panel is made up of teachers and parents in the school district who are expected to read each book they review.

“It’s important we consider context and taking things out of the context they were written in,” committee member Yancy Bonner said. 

A brief applause greeted Bonner’s argument that banning the “The Color Purple” would infringe on student’s First Amendment rights. About 10 people in the audience wore purple in solidarity against the ban.

Although the push for book banning has typically come from more conservative circles, on Wednesday in Seattle, about 30 Amazon employees staged a protest of their company’s continued sale of what they say are transphobic books. Progressive groups have also pushed for the removal of statues and other historical references consider offensive.  

Vetter submitted an 8-page complaint about “How to Be an Antiracist,” a 2019 nonfiction book by American author and historian Ibram X. Kendi. Vetter was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting as he was on vacation and no other party besides the complainants were allowed to speak from the public. The board voted 5-3 against rescheduling the hearing for a different time he would be present. 

The book discusses the topic of racism and proposals for how to avoid taking racist actions and other systemic changes that can be made. 

Although the committee refused to make his complaint publicly available, different committee members referred to Vetter describing the book as inappropriate, false, one-sided, and from the perspective of someone who supports Critical Race Theory.

In research of the book, Lucas said she only found it recommended for adults, but said she spoke with other high school-level colleagues who have it at their schools.

“I don’t think this is going to be too heavy of a lift for our students to actually read,” Lucas said.

The committee said Vetter’s complaints were limited to the first 33 pages of the 240-page book, saying he does not want this to be available because it reports false information, with no conflicting viewpoints available to students in the library.  

Lucas said there are multiple books written by conservative black authors in the school library and mentioned an instance where a student used “How to Be an Antiracist” as an opposing viewpoint in a paper they were writing. Social studies teacher Stephany Anderson, also a committee member, mentioned how important she finds it for her students to experience a diversity of opinions. 

Committee member Jason Todd said even though he didn’t agree with about half the book, he found it to be a worthwhile read because it challenged many of his previous convictions.

 In Gillette last October, a couple wanted library employees prosecuted by the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office for making five sex education and LGBTQ-themed books available to young people. The office declined to press charges and the local library board declined to remove the books.

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Wyo Education Officials Unsure About New Federal Gender-Identity & Sexual Orientation Mandates

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Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming school authorities are consulting with legal counsel in order to determine the state’s response to new federal gender-identity-friendly policies.  The requirements are linked to millions of dollars in school meal funding.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced May 5 that all state and local agencies funded by its sub-agency the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) must update nondiscrimination policies to include protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.  

The Wyoming Department of Education in the past two fiscal years has received roughly $90 million per year in FNS funding.  

USDA is reinterpreting Title IX of the federal education amendments to include the two protected groups, in reflection of a recent court decision and a January 2021 executive order by President Joe Biden promoting LGBTQ nondiscrimination measures, a USDA announcement said. 

A federal court in Florida in 2020 ruled that barring a public-school student from using the bathroom consistent with his gender identity constitutes gender identity discrimination.  

The Wyoming Department of Education is reviewing the issue with its attorney.  

In a Thursday email to Cowboy State Daily, Linda Finnerty, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Education, said her agency did not have a comment on the policy change but is looking into it, along with the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office.  

‘Does This Mean All Activities?’

Brian Farmer, executive director for the Wyoming School Boards Association, said his agency also is working with legal counsel to interpret the USDA funding requirement.  

“We’re kind of working with our legal team and some folks at the Wyoming Department of Education, just seeing what we think that might mean for us,” said Farmer.  

He said the mandate could be so broad as to include a blanket mandate for the department and all schools to update their nondiscrimination policies, or it could be more specific to lunch food programs. 

In food and nutrition programs in schools statewide, said Farmer, “there just really isn’t much discrimination that occurs at all.” 

If the policy change were narrowly tailored to foods programs, he continued, the state’s schools wouldn’t see many changes.  

“And that’s in part what our legal team is working through. Is this limited to the federal dollars related to funding from USDA, or does this mean all activities of the district?” Farmer said.  

School foods programs in Wyoming do “not necessarily” have their own nondiscrimination policies, said Farmer, as the department and whole school districts do.  

The state education department’s non-discrimination policy does not include the two new protected groups under USDA’s mandate.

If the mandate is broad enough to affect school district workings including athletics, then schools that disagree with gender-identity friendly policies in those areas could refuse USDA funding, which includes school food programs, meal service training, and other programs. 

“Hypothetically a district could choose not to accept the federal funds for nutrition services, if they felt uncomfortable adding that to, say, a general discrimination statement,” said Farmer, adding that for all of these possibilities, “it’s just too early to say” what the course of action would be.  

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Report: 65% Of Wyo Teachers Want To Leave Jobs

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Although a recent study showed that the majority of Wyoming teachers surveyed would leave their jobs if they could, a University of Wyoming professor does not think the outlook among teachers statewide is quite that bleak.

The University of Wyoming and Wyoming Education Association partnered to produce a survey that analyzed Wyoming teachers’ intent to leave the profession altogether.

Around 14% of the teachers surveyed said it was likely or very likely they would leave teaching, but more than 65% of the respondents said they wanted to leave.

“They want to leave, but they don’t want to leave,” Mark Perkins, associate professor of educational research, told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “The majority of the teachers surveyed said they were proud to be teachers in Wyoming, so this shows they still consider themselves to be teachers but they want to leave because of other, peripheral matters.”

Over 700 teachers responded to the survey, with 70% answering it completely. The survey included more than 260 variables, such as teacher wellbeing, depression and anxiety.

Wyoming is not the only state suffering from a general malaise among teachers. Nationally, teachers have been leaving their jobs in droves, with the COVID-19 being one of the major reasons behind the shift, according to a report from The Hill.

Perkins ran some of the survey data through a processing software more than 15 times in order to confirm what he was seeing from the respondents.

He was not necessarily surprised there was dissatisfaction, but said the high numbers among surveyed teachers was a bit of a shock.

But Perkins noted that the data is only a subset of an entire state’s opinion and added that it is possible the most dissatisfied of teachers might have been more likely to take the survey.

“This is one of those examples where social science research produces ‘Captain Obvious’ results, because we’re seeing teachers aren’t feeling supported in their careers, which then makes them want to leave,” Perkins said. “Of course you’re not going to want to stay in a job where you don’t feel supported and it’s going to affect your mental health.”

Perkins pointed to growing workloads, the stress of assessments and the emotional weight of caring for dozens of children daily as being some of the reasons that teachers are being pushed to their breaking points.

Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) deputy superintendent Chad Auer told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that it was alarming to see such high numbers of dissatisfaction among these surveyed educators.

However, he was also grateful for the state-specific data, because it will allow the WDE to better address the issues Wyoming teachers are having.

“We need to have an understanding of what does this attrition look like for us here in Wyoming and what are the underlying factors,” Auer said. “When I look at this report, it is thorough, so I think we can take this data and turn it into dialogues about what Wyoming teachers need, so we can produce results.”

Perkins added that the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee recommended a similar survey be distributed among Wyoming educators next year to see how the data compares between the two years.

He recommended that school districts and state legislators focus on policies next session that will decrease heavy workloads, streamline assessments and improve educators’ mental health.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Megan Degenfelder told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday that it was the current superintendent’s role to take all of the data and develop regional stakeholder groups to identify which issues exist in individual communities across the state.

“Based on this work, we then begin solving the problem and making recommendations for legislative changes,’ she said. “This effort will take considerable effort and won’t look the same in every community. But we can and we must do the work to ensure we have highly-qualified teachers in the state.”

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Wyo Could Lose Millions In Fed Education Money If It Doesn’t Comply With Gender Identity Policies

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming could potentially lose tens of millions of dollars in federal education money if it does not comply with gender identity policies.

The federal government last month tied about $90 million per year in Wyoming education funding to gender identity-friendly policies in schools, which, according to a federal judge, would include non-binary bathroom use.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced May 5 it is reinterpreting Title IX – a nondiscrimination amendment to federal law originally crafted to ensure women’s equal opportunity in sports – to include nondiscrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

All state and local agencies, program operators and sponsors receiving funds from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) must update their non-discrimination policies and signage “to include prohibitions against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” according to the statement.

The Wyoming Department of Education in fiscal year 2022 received about $87.5 million in FNS grants, for various school food programs and trainings, according to the U.S. Treasury.

In 2021, the figure was even higher, with FNS granting $97.9 million to the Wyoming Department of Education.

State funding to operate Wyoming K-12 schools is about $1.8 billion per two-year budget cycle, not including building costs.

Wording
The state’s department of education nondiscrimination policy at present does not include the two new descriptors. It does include specific protections for individuals’ race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability, and defers to Title IX, among other federal statutes.

The USDA wrote in its announcement that its new interpretation of the law was prompted by two actions: President Joe Biden’s January 2021 executive order to prevent and combat discrimination “on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation” – and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2020 case Bostock v. Clayton County.

In Bostock, the court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to sexual orientation and gender identity protections. Bostock has been cited in other cases underpinning bathroom access rights among transgender students.

In a separate case, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Beverly Martin ruled in 2020 that for a Florida teen identifying as a male, access to the boys bathroom is a right under Title IX of U.S. civil rights laws.

Both Wyoming Department of Education leadership and lawmakers on the Wyoming legislative Education Committee were unavailable for comment Wednesday. They were attending a meeting of the committee in Casper.

The USDA did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

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Wyoming Remains Divided Over Teachers Carrying Guns Debate

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

In the wake of the Uvalde elementary school shooting last week, discussion has again started about whether or not teachers should be allowed to carry guns on school campuses.

At least one parent and one state organization have told Cowboy State Daily they do not feel teachers carrying guns will make schools any safer, but these are not the only voices out there.

Wyoming allows local school boards to decide whether or not its teachers are allowed to carry guns and at least two districts in the state have allowed it: Park County School District No. 6 and Fremont County School District No. 1.

Fremont’s carrying policy has been in place for about three years, while Park’s was adopted in August 2020.

Due to confidentiality reasons, the amount of teachers who carry could not be shared, as well as any of their names.

Tim Foley, interim superintendent of PCSD6, did confirm to Cowboy State Daily that there were staff members who did participate, though.

Uinta County School District No. 1 attempted to adopt a gun carrying policy, but was sued by Tiffany Eskelsen-Maestas, a parent of two students in the district.

She told Cowboy State Daily there are other, better, methods that can create long-lasting change and prevent violence from happening in the first place, something she said a gun cannot do.

“There are various intervention and prevention methods that consider risk and protective factors and, if not evidence-based, are promising practices,” she said on Wednesday. “They are comprehensive while supporting the emotional and physical well-being of students and faculty, not only in relation to gun violence but other possible types of violence.”

She is a gun owner, but believes there is a time and place for them and school is not one of them.

She added it was especially prudent for school districts to focus on programming that reduces and prevents violence.

“I believe school districts should be basing their decision-making on research just as it is required of students to fully research an issue and use evidence to support their position in their classes,” Eskelson-Maestas said. “I think we can do better for the lifetime health of Wyoming students and faculty by implementing comprehensive evidence-based and promising practices that reduce and prevent this violence.”

Congressional candidate Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, heavily promoted concealed carrying on school campuses, saying it makes schools safer.

“The statistics reveal, that permit holders can be trusted, even more so than the police,” Bouchard said last week. “We should ignore the left coast gun control crowd, instead Wyoming should follow the lead of [Utah].”

He added that gun-free zones kill. There have been several attempts by the Wyoming Legislature to repeal gun-free zones in the state, but all have failed so far.

The Wyoming Education Association (WEA) does not support teachers carrying guns, according to its legislative platform.

“WEA believes that only trained law enforcement officers should be allowed to carry firearms and/or other weapons in schools or on school property,” its platform said. “The WEA does not support public education employees carrying firearms and/or other weapons due to the demonstrated threat to school safety should staff become overpowered, should weapons be accessed by students or should weapons in schools be accidentally discharged.”

WEA President Grady Hutcherson called on Wyoming lawmakers last week to prioritize state schools by providing adequate funding to school districts to better secure entrances and update facilities. He also called for more and better access to mental health services.

2019 study by researchers at the University of Toledo and Ball State University reviewed 18 years of school security measures, including placing more armed teachers in schools, and found no evidence of reduced gun violence, according to Vox.

Other states that allow school employees to carry guns include Idaho, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota.

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Former UW Student With $100K in Student Loan Debt Says No To Fed Loan Forgiveness

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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily

Gillette resident Molly Wiesner may be facing more than $100,000 in student loan debt, but she wants no part of proposed federal student loan forgiveness programs being discussed nationally.

When her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wiesner was forced to change her major and extend the amount of time it took her to complete her undergraduate degree at UW. 

She went on to get a master’s degree in business, which she said helped her open two successful businesses that she runs with her husband.

But she knew what she was getting into, she said, when she applied for help to get through school.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am, nor would I be where I am professionally without my two degrees,” Wiesner said. “I have struggled just like everyone, lived off of practically nothing — but I signed those loan documents knowing it was a path to a better life, and it was.”

Broad Forgiveness Plans

The question of whether thousands of dollars in student debt faced by college graduates should be forgiven or whether the borrowers need to be responsible for paying their loans is on the minds of many Americans and Wyoming residents, especially with broad forgiveness plans under consideration.

President Joe Biden has proposed forgiving $10,000 to $50,000 in debt for those making less than $125,000 to $150,000 per year, according to news reports, about 97% of all student loan holders.

The move would cost the federal government $245 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) has been pushing the Biden Administration to forgive more student debt, saying the $10,000 minimum amounts to less than one-third of the average federal student loan burden of $37,000.

But the forgiveness of $10,000 could likely make a big difference for a graduate of University of Wyoming, a school with annual costs for in-state students of up to $18,000 per year.

More than half of the UW’s students graduate with no debt, said university Trustee David Fall.

Fall said he doesn’t support loan forgiveness, even though his daughter is still paying back loans for medical school. Fall’s son, who Fall loaned money to for college, is also repaying his father.

Fall said the real answer to the issue lies in tuition caps for colleges and universities so students can be taught the lessons of fiscal responsibility without the crippling debt that has accompanied a higher education in recent years.

Federalization of Loans

State Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, drafted the bill that created the Hathaway Scholarship,  a program that provides tuition assistance for the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges for graduates of Wyoming high schools.

Scott told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday he blames the escalating student debt on the federalization of student loans in 2010.

“When you’re a student you don’t realize how hard it’s going to be to pay off that kind of debt,” he said. “You’re going to have that hanging over you.”

Prior to 2010, private banks approved most loans to students at terms the federal government dictated, thus guaranteeing banks their returns. 

In 2010, Congress dictated the federal government start making direct loans to students, cutting private banks out of the process, which Scott said allowed certain institutions and their faculty members to profit.

Scott said the change led to an increase in the number of borrowers and in the amount of money being approved for loans.

“When it was semi-private they showed some restraint,” Scott said. “They kept it from getting out of hand.”

Opponents of student loan forgiveness ague that being forced to pay off loans teaches students fiscal responsibility, while others have described forgiveness as a bailout for affluent college graduates.

However, the Washington Post reported some in the Biden administration have proposed only forgiving debt for undergraduate work.

Biden has already extended a moratorium on student loan payments to Aug. 31. The moratorium began in March 2020 under former President Donald Trump as a way to provide COVID relief.

The administration has argued pausing interest and payments on student loans has saved billions of dollars for 41 million student borrowers.

For And Against

Charles Pelkey, a Laramie attorney and former state representative, told Cowboy State Daily last week the respite from student loan payments has had a positive impact on the economy.

“Look at what’s happened with the student loan payment deferral, families have been able to buy homes or help with daycare costs,” he said. “These are people who were paying anywhere from 10% to 20% of their monthly income on student loan debt beforehand.”

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, however, said that simply forgiving student debt will not address the root of the problem — meeting the cost of higher education.

“Blanket bailouts of student loan debts don’t address the system that created this problem,” she said in a Facebook post. “Instead, it encourages institutions to raise tuition. We’ll be bailing borrowers out again if we bail them out now.”

Wiesner suggested adjusting the interest rates on student loans, the source of profit for loan providers, noting her interest rate is between 6% and 7%.

“Why do I pay more interest on my student loans than my mortgage?” she asked. “If anything, forgive the interest or cap it at 1% and let us pay the principal.”

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Three Wyoming GOP Superintendent Candidates Agree Parents Need More Control In Schools

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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily

The three Republicans who have announced they intend to run for superintendent of public instruction agree on the idea that parents should be given more authority in the classroom.

The three — interim Superintendent Brian Schroeder, Megan Degenfelder and Thomas Kelly — all shared the opinion while speaking with Cowboy State Daily during last weekend’s Republican convention.

Below is a summary of their comments:

Brian Schroeder

Schroeder, the interim superintendent, was chosen by Gov. Mark Gordon in January to finish the term left vacant with the departure of former Superintendent Jillian Balow.

Schroeder, who was nominated for the spot by the Wyoming Republican Party Central Committee, said he has been working at a “fast and furious” pace in order to stay on top of his job duties while actively campaigning. 

Since taking the job, Schroeder said his previously held views have only been reinforced. But he also said he has gained an understanding for those with opposing views, becoming “sensitive to how they came” to their viewpoints. 

Schroeder said he does not know if critical race theory, an ideology he is adamantly opposed to, is being taught in Wyoming’s classrooms, but said elements of it are being implemented with and without teachers’ choice. 

Schroeder said he wants to move away from an over-reliance on the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress for judging student achievement. The test provides an inadequate measure of student literacy, he said, which he considers one of the most important components of education.

Schroeder also said he does not believe recent study results showing Wyoming students had lower standardized test scores than students in Utah, a state that provides less funding per pupil. Wyoming has some of the highest per-pupil funding in the nation at around $15,000 per year.

“It’s a one moment in time conclusion,” he said. “How can we be better than where we’re at? WYTOPP measures a lot but not that.”

Schroeder said the state needs a literacy-specific test to get a more accurate measure of how it is doing on this subject and where it needs to move into the future. 

Schroeder said he has been enjoying speaking with teachers throughout the state and learning what they think can be done better.

“The best way to understand is to talk to the school staff,” he said. “They are very capable people.”

Schroeder, who has a background in private schooling, said both private and public schools can learn a lot from each other.

Thomas Kelly

Kelly is a Sheridan resident who is a college professor and chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University, a private, for-profit, online school based in West Virginia. He also served on the City of Sheridan planning commission from 2019-2021 and was a public school teacher for 10 years. He currently has five children in Wyoming public schools.

“I’m easily the most qualified (candidate) for the job,” he said. “I’m far and away more qualified as far as educational experience.”

Kelly is passionate about the issue of parental control and said school administrators in his town of Sheridan have been “tone deaf” to the wishes of parents in recent years. 

He said he also supports school vouchers and better support for parents teaching their children in homeschool environments.

Coming from Illinois before he moved to Wyoming, Kelly said the spending he saw there made him realize the importance of fiscal responsibility in schooling. 

“It doesn’t matter how much money they have, the administration, the school boards, the state, they always say they’re dead broke and have to raise taxes ,” he said.

He said he is also concerned with the growing use of the terms “equity” and “diversity” in Wyoming classrooms, concepts he said he has seen implemented in Illinois schools over the past 20 years with no positive effects.

“I understand the language, I know how to oppose it, and I’m not confident either of the other candidates know what they’re going up against,” he said.

Kelly said he finds Wyoming school funding to be adequate and does not think that spending more per student translates to better learning. 

He said the state is “top-heavy” when it comes to administration staff and wants to encourage school districts to put more of an emphasis on spending in the classroom and less on adding extra positions such as assistants to superintendents.

Kelly said he would cut administrative costs to boost teacher salaries, but he added he does not want pay based on educational qualifications or experience. Instead, he said, teacher pay should be based on merit.

“(The current system) dissuades young, motivated teachers from coming in who are at the bottom of the pay scale,” he said. “It just encourages burnt out teachers who just want to get to retirement to just hang around.”

Kelly said he views the Wyoming Department of Education as an extra branch of the U.S. Department of Education, set up with the primary purpose of obtaining federal funds and exerting influence in the classroom.

“I have no desire to be a powerful bureaucrat,” he said. “This is a civil service, people asked me to do this.”

Megan Degenfelder

Degenfelder is a sixth-generation Wyoming native who is the government and regulatory affairs manager for Morningstar Partners Oil and Gas. She was a chief policy officer for the state Department of Education under Balow from 2017-2019.

Degenfelder has also said the voices of parents are being silenced in classrooms, and she described the state’s public schools as having lost track of Wyoming and American values like innovation and hard work.

“With innovation we have to attack it at a local level,” she said.

Degenfelder said Wyoming’s communities have many wide-ranging needs that can’t be met with a “one size fits all model.”

“What it comes down to rolling up our sleeves and working for local control,” she said.

If elected, Degenfelder said she would attempt to bridge the gap between the Department of Education and the private sector to let individual school districts determine educational needs based on the needs of each community’s workforce. Degenfelder wants schools to partner with local industries and provide better training for certain trades.

Having worked in both the public and private sectors, Degenfelder said she is well equipped to handle these challenges.

“I’ve seen how important a robust workforce is,” she said. “Having career and technical education is what leads to high paying jobs. The more choices we give students for the future the better.”

The three candidates differed slightly on the issue of dealing with the needs of transgender students.

Schroeder said he sees the issue a “social contagion” brought on by the growth of social media. He said many school administrators have told him they consider the presence of social media as a significant problem causing students great distraction in the classroom. 

Schroeder said parents need to be a part of their child’s gender identification determination and be involved during the counseling process.

“Teenagers shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions absent of the parents,” he said. “It starts with the parents.”

Kelly is particularly opposed to letting boys who identify as girls play on girls’ athletic teams. On the other hand, he said he does not like how certain people are “vilifying” transgender children. He said transgender issues are a decision for families to make and that being a teenager is hard enough task by itself.

“Kids should be able to identify how they wish, dress how they want to wish,” he said. “But at some point reality has to step in and you can’t let a 6-foot, 6-(inch) biological male on to the girls volleyball team.”

Degenfelder says transgender issues should be dealt with on a community-by-community level with school administration and parents collaborating to decide what fits best for their community. 

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Shoshone Tribe Asks UW To Consider Free Tuition For Native Students

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Eastern Shoshone Chairman John St. Clair and UW president Ed Seidel
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming has agreed to review a proposal to waive tuition for American Indian students along with other ideas to reduce college costs for tribal students.

The Eastern Shoshone Business Council announced that during a meeting with UW President Ed Seidel last week, its leaders asked the university to consider waiving tuition and fees for students enrolled in American Indian tribes as the University of California has done.

While the UW did not commit to doing so, Seidel did agree to discuss the idea, along with other options that may assist indigenous students in attending college, according to a university spokesman.   

The Northern Arapaho Business Council also participated in the meeting.  

‘Act of Good Faith’ 

“One of the topics we want to pursue, certainly, is more financial support for native students,” UW spokesman Chad Baldwin told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. 

During the two-day meeting last week between UW and the two federally recognized tribes of Wyoming, leaders of all three entities approved new memoranda of understanding defining their relationship.   

Baldwin noted that the new MOU promises to open the funding discussion, but does not commit any party to a specific method of financial support.  

“(Waiving fees and tuition) could require action by our board of trustees, so there’s not been any commitment there,” Baldwin said. “I know president Seidel definitely wants to have those discussions.”

Jordan Dresser, chairman of the NABC, announced in a prepared video last week that the MOU update is “an act of good faith” promoting “the idea that we’re going to collaborate for future projects and also, we’re going to help create a path for students to be successful.”  

In the same prepared video, ESBC Chairman John St. Clair called the MOU “a good agreement,” and emphasized a desire “to develop resources to help our students while they’re in school.”  

Neither St. Clair nor Dresser responded to requests through their spokesmen for further comment Wednesday morning.  

Too Soon To Talk Funding 

State Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said it was too early in the process to discuss funding mechanisms for a possible tribal tuition waiver.  

He noted that about half of UW’s funding comes from the state; the other half is from tuition, federal money and other sources.  

“We don’t know if they’re going to do it through their own funding, through their ways that they can provide special discounts for either tribal individuals or folks in need,” said Nicholas. “It’s premature to have that discussion.” 

The Legislature cut university funding by about $10 million in 2020, but UW has since compensated in some areas by using American Rescue Plan Act funds, Nicholas said.

The UW received a total of about $49.4 million in COVID-19 federal grants, including CARES Act, ARPA and other program funds, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.  

The federal government has given or pledged $64.2 million to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in COVID grants and direct funds to date.  

The federal government has given or promised the Northern Arapaho Tribe roughly $136.6 million in COVID grants and direct funds so far.  

Other Schools Waive Fees 

The University of California on April 22 dispatched a letter announcing tuition and fees waivers for all enrolled tribal students in a gesture “recognizing and acknowledging historical wrongs endured by Native Americans.”  

For the 2022-23 school year, annual in-state tuition at the University of California is $13,104 according to nativenewsonline.net.  

About 0.5% of the California school’s students in 2021 were American Indian.  

Nearly 0.7% of UW’s students in the fall 2021 semester were American Indian.  

Many colleges throughout the nation offer tribe-specific scholarships and fee waivers to students enrolled in various tribes.  

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Pay Boost Could Put Powell Teachers Near Top For Salaries in Wyoming

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Trustees for Park County School District No. 1 in Powell are considering raising teacher pay significantly, moving the district’s salaries from among the lowest in the state to among  the highest.

“We have not raised our base since 2017,” said Jay Curtis, Superintendent of Park County School District No. 1. “When we raised it in 2017, it made us pretty competitive in the state. The raise to $51,000, if the board adopts that, which I hope they do, this next Tuesday, it will put us somewhere in the neighborhood of sixth or seventh in the state with regards to base pay.”

Currently, the district’s base pay is at $48,350, Curtis said, which has put the district between 22nd and 25th place for salaries in the state the last few years. 

He told Cowboy State Daily that the proposed pay increase goes hand-in-hand with the culture in his school district, which is “Happy teachers create happy classrooms.”

“We are in the people business,” he said, “and the health of our organization, and the quality of our organization, really, can be measured by how well we take care of the people that we expect to take care of our children. Happy teachers create happy classrooms, and that’s where you want kids to go and to be able to learn at high levels.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder agreed, telling Cowboy State Daily that the teaching profession should be one of the best paid in society.

“Teaching is the hardest job on earth next to parenting,” he said. “It requires a very creative kind of person with highly-developed communication skills and organizational skills, not to mention an uncanny ability to work with young people. How well we pay our teachers may reflect how much we value our children.” 

But the Powell school board isn’t stopping at teachers – Curtis said that the board is planning a considerable pay raise for district’s hourly staff as well.

“We’re actually increasing every hourly scale by $2.90 an hour to make our minimum in the district $15 an hour,” he said. “For, like, a para-educator, I think currently the scale is at $12.10. When we take a $2.90 increase, that’s about a 24% increase to those scales.”

Curtis explained that when it comes to creating a positive learning environment for the district’s students, the board can’t limit better compensation to just teachers.

“Happy bus drivers create happy buses, which means that’s the first first face that our kids see in the morning,” he said. “Happy food service workers create happy kitchens, which makes nutritious food for our kids. I mean, the list goes on and on. If we’re not taking care of our people, then we’re not taking care of our kids.”

Curtis said the increase comes at a time when inflation is hitting the community hard.

“We’re seeing unprecedented levels of inflation,” he said. “So every day that our staff works at the same rate of pay, they are essentially losing money when they’re trying to pay for groceries, trying to pay for gas, trying to pay their mortgages, you name it, medical, it’s becoming more and more difficult.”

“Teacher salaries have not risen over the past decade or more in Wyoming, commensurate with inflation,” Schroeder pointed out. “If we are to recruit and retain the best and the brightest, we must compensate them adequately, even generously.” 

Increasing salaries across the board will not only help to maintain a positive culture in the school district, Curtis said, it also will go a long way towards recruiting quality staff to fill much-needed positions.

“Special Education is a high area of needs,” he said. “Special education teachers and (para-educators) have been very difficult to come by – in fact, we still have a few openings with regards to that. And there are other areas in the district that are getting more and more difficult to fill, areas like custodial. I think for the last four openings we’ve had, we’ve had five applicants total. So we’re trying to raise our base pay for all employees in hopes that we will recruit more people into those jobs – like bus driving, like custodial.”

Curtis noted money is currently in the budget to make these changes.

“We’ve been hearing over and over from our legislators that they’re going to cut our budgets,” he said. “Well, we’ve heard that ‘We’re going to cut you’ story for about 12 years now, and we have not seen those cuts come. And so at some point you have to just say, ‘Well, we’re just going to use the money that we have now to take care of our people in the most responsible manner that we can.’ 

“We need to be able to recruit and retain the best, which has always been something that Powell strives for – and you can’t recruit and retain the best when the power of the dollar that we’re paying is decreasing so dramatically,” he continued. “We just had to get more competitive.”

Curtis pointed out that by offering higher salaries, the district is able to increase the likelihood that students will succeed.

“We want to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers we can,” he said, “because we know that the single greatest metric in impacting a student’s education is the quality of the teacher you put in the classroom.”

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Wyoming Superintendent Candidates Want Return to American Values

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Photos of: Brian Schroeder, Megan Degenfelder. Thomas Kelly (artist rendition).
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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily

The race for the superintendent of public instruction’s office is heating up, with three candidates having thrown their hats in the ring. 

Each of the three Republicans, who each sought the state’s top education job when former Superintendent Jillian Balow left the state earlier this year, have said they want to return American values to the classroom and run the job with a conservative mindset. 

Only one of the candidates is a Wyoming native.

“I think it’s important that we have elected officials that understand the culture of Wyoming and the way we do things in this state,” said Megan Degenfelder, who served with Balow in the state Department of Education.

Brian Schroeder, a former private Christian school administrator from Cody who was appointed to finish out Balow’s term as superintendent by Gov. Mark Gordon, announced his intention to run in March. 

Schroeder, quoted in numerous news stories, has spoken out against Critical Race Theory and “revisionist” telling of history and has stressed the importance of the family in the classroom.

“The local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society,” Schroeder wrote when originally seeking the position. “There is, therefore, no work on earth more important than what we do as teachers, which makes the top teacher job in the state all the more critical by way of providing the necessary leadership and direction to our schools.”

Sheridan resident Thomas Kelly was the first candidate to announce he is running this fall. He is a college professor and chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University, a private, for-profit, online school based in West Virginia. He also served on the City of Sheridan planning commission from 2019-2021.

“Wyoming is at a crossroads in terms of maintaining both an excellent public educational system and remaining fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” Kelly wrote earlier this year. “Wyoming needs to focus on hiring effective and innovative educators rather than further bloating district bureaucracies and chasing the latest expensive technology for the classroom.”

Both Kelly and Schroeder moved to Wyoming in recent years.

Degenfelder, a sixth-generation Wyoming native, is the government and regulatory affairs manager for Morningstar Partners Oil and Gas. She also served as a former chief policy officer for the state Department of Education under Balow.

Degenfelder has said the voices of parents are being silenced in classrooms, places she describes as being influenced by anti-American values. If elected, she said would attempt to bridge the gap between the Department of Education and the private sector to let districts determine educational needs based on that community’s workforce.

Degenfelder submitted her name for consideration when the state Republican Party selected three nominees to fill Balow’s vacancy. 

Schroeder and Kelly were both nominated, as was former legislator Marti Halverson

Halverson told the Cowboy State Daily although she gave running for superintendent some “serious consideration,” she will not mount a campaign as she feels there is already a field of qualified candidates. 

All of these candidates are still considered unofficial as the filing period for candidacies does not open until May 12. It closes on May 27.

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Coal Money Gone: Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars No Longer Available For School Construction

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Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming will receive no coal lease bonus money to help fund its schools and their construction needs in the next two years, a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars compared to past budget cycles.

And income from other minerals isn’t looking good either, Matt Wilmarth, education expert with the Legislative Service Office, told the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

“Coal lease revenue is gone,” said Wilmarth, who was presenting figures from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group’s latest report.

CREG is a group of state economic analysts who quarterly predict what the state’s income will look like.

When the legislative Revenue Committee met Wednesday to hear a breakdown of K-12 education funding sources, one thing was noticeably absent from the 2023-24 projected makeup of the “capital construction” or school building and major repairs account: Coal.  

Coal leasing bonuses dropped out of Wyoming’s school funding in 2019 and haven’t come back. School building and major maintenance projects are expected to receive no money from coal leasing bonuses by the end of this biennium (2021-22) or throughout the next one.  

A coal leasing bonus is an amount paid to the state or other landowner by a mining tenant when its lease is secured. 

Wilmarth noted that the report could change when the state reassesses markets in October.  

Courts Made Us Do It 

From 2005-2018, coal leasing bonuses funded a huge majority of school construction in Wyoming, ranging from about $400 million in 2005-06 to $100 million in 2017-18. 

In this biennium and the next, the entire account is budgeted at about $170 million – a fraction of its nearly $500-million volume during the building-busy years of 2005 and 2013-2016. 

When the Wyoming Supreme Court beginning in 1995 mandated school districts to provide a uniform experience to students regardless of their county’s affluence, coal, said Wilmarth, allowed the state “to respond to court decisions, to build schools.”  

Why No Coal? 

Sen. Tom James, R-Green River, asked why coal bonuses have dried up.  

Travis Deti, Wyoming Mining Association executive director, said there are “a couple companies” exploring leases right now, but they are looking at smaller tracts than before the industry’s slump began.

“Right now demand has gone down,” added Deti.  

James was concerned that coal port embargoes in other states had contributed to the decline, but Deti said a large majority of Wyoming coal is consumed domestically, and “domestic utilities have been shifting away from coal.”  

A lack of startup bonuses now, said Case, indicates a lack of revenues in the future. 

Federal Minerals Royalties 

On the “school foundation program,” or operational and staffing side of school funding, Wyoming’s share of federal mineral royalties on commodities such as oil and natural gas was cut nearly in half in recent years.

Royalties are paid after production begins on a parcel of land.

Every two years, beginning in the 2005-06 biennium, Wyoming’s schools have received about $541 million, or 41% of their total foundation funding, from federal minerals royalties.  

Compare that to 2021-22, when Wyoming’s K-12 schools are running on $382 million, or 25% of their total foundation endowment.  

Investment 

Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, noted that both natural gas and coal revenues have decreased by 50% in the past decade. He said the market should compel Wyoming to “find other sources of revenue” and plan better to retain the energy wealth that does remain to invest it in other pools.  

“The racehorse that’s been working for us (recently) is the investment earnings,” said Case. “So, keeping our mineral wealth and investing it for the future, and using it, is going to be really, really important.”  

“It may not be a good time to reduce the severance tax on coal,” he said, “but I guess we just did that.” 

Case was referring to a severance tax reduction approved by the Legislature during its recent budget session. 

Case emphasized that although he wasn’t saying he agreed with the change, “we’re living in a more carbon-conscious world” and should recognize “the implications of that.” 

‘Most Valuable Real Estate in the World’ 

Declines in the coal and mineral industries also affect the state’s 3.5 million acres of federally-entrusted school-trust lands, which are designed to provide income for state schools.

Sales, activities, and investments on those lands yielded about $253 million to K-12 schools in Wyoming in 2020 – which is far higher than its yields of roughly $100 million the early 2000s. 

Wilmarth said the profitability of activities on those lands can fluctuate with oil, natural gas, and coal markets as well.  

The Legislature has been responding to coal funding declines by doubling down on investment projects, said Wilmarth, which “backfill” losses, but do “not make up for the loss of coal lease bonus money” on the construction side.  

“The value of our state lands is incredible,” said Committee Co-Chair Steve Harshman, R-Casper. “There are six sections in Teton County, of school (trust) lands that are priceless. They’re not $40 million parcels. Add more zeroes.” 

Harshman said the school trust lands in Teton County may be the “most valuable real estate in the world” and Wyoming needs to recognize their value as it uses or sells them.  

Marguerite Hermann, a member of Advocates for School Trust Lands, urged the committee to follow lands investment opportunities closely.  

Harshman agreed, and encouraged Herman to bring some ideas to the Committee in the near future.

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Wyoming Trade Schools See Boom In Enrollment

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Trade schools in Wyoming and nationally are seeing a boom in enrollment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The operators of several Wyoming programs that train students for work in trades such as automotive and welding told Cowboy State Daily their enrollment numbers have skyrocketed over the last two years, with more and more people becoming interested in hands-on work that doesn’t require a four-year college degree.

Western Welding Academy

Western Welding Academy in Gillette only launched in late 2019, but has managed to increase its enrollment by more than 1,000% since then.

“When we started, we only had around eight students, but now, we have about 150,” welding instructor Danny Kiederling told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s a smaller campus, but if you look at the last two years, that’s a pretty big increase in quality of product.”

The majority of WWA’s courses last anywhere from five to seven weeks, although its most popular course, professional pipe welding, lasts six months.

Kierderling said he believes more people are turning to trade schools because they allow for a shorter time in school and larger paychecks after graduation.

“We have one student who did really well here and he holds the record for being a Western Welding Academy student who has brought home the biggest paycheck so far, $7,800 for one week,” he said. “He’s 19 years old. I think people are getting wise to that. There’s only so many lawyers you can have, but America runs on blue collar people who works with their hands.”

With nationwide shortages in trade workers and skilled laborers across the board, students essentially have their pick of jobs once they get out of trade school, operators of the schools said.

WyoTech

WyoTech, an automotive trade school in Laramie, was on the brink of bankruptcy when it was purchased by a team of Wyoming natives in 2018. Around that time, there were only 26 students enrolled at the college.

As of last fall, 685 students were enrolled, an increase of more than 2,000%. Of all the trade schools in Wyoming, WyoTech is one of the oldest, having opened in 1966.

“The growth of WyoTech, as well as other trade and vocational schools across the nation, is a sign of the changing times within the U.S. job market,” WyoTech President Jim Mathis said. “There has been a growing emphasis on skilled labor, as those jobs remain unfilled the longest.”

WyoTech will be expanding its current facilities by 90,000 square feet within the next year, due to the large amount of growth it has seen in just three years.

Its programs last around nine months and focus on either automotive technology, collision repair or diesel technology. The short programs not only allow for students to enter the workforce in a shorter time period, but also generate less student debt that one would at a typical four-year university.

Mathis also noted that by the time WyoTech students graduate from the nine-month program, they will have three years’ worth of industry experience.

Wind Energy

Laramie County Community College, which has campuses in Cheyenne and Laramie, has several trade programs, including for welding, automotive and diesel technology and wind energy.

LCCC spokeswoman Lisa Trimble told Cowboy State Daily that the wind energy program is actually being retooled and will change from being offered as an associate’s degree to a “credit diploma,” shortening the class time from two years to 10 months. The revised program will be active for the 2023-2024 academic years, Tshe said..

“The hope is to draw more students who are interested in learning the trade and going to work as soon as possible,” Trimble said. “COVID-19 hurt the wind program since most of the students in the program come from out of state.”

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Pinedale Special Ed Teacher Fired, Appears In Child Predator Sting Video

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Pinedale teacher has been dismissed after being accused of trying to arrange a clandestine meeting with an underage boy while in California, officials announced Friday.

The Sublette County Sheriff’s Office and Sublette County School District No. 1, in a joint statement, announced district trustees voted Thursday to dismiss David Shaw over allegations of misconduct that occurred in San Diego.

The statement did not specify the nature of the misconduct.

However, a video from the YouTube series “People v. Preds,” shows a man the show’s producers identified only as “David” and who appears to be Shaw involved in a confrontation with a second man who said he posed online as a 14-year-old boy as part of a sting to identify potential child predators.

According to the statement from the school district and sheriff’s office, an unidentified man contacted school district Superintendent Shannon Harris and two school resource officers to allege misconduct on the part of a Pinedale teacher while he was in San Diego.

After school officials made contact with the caller, the man sent an email which included a video of Shaw, who was immediately placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, the statement said.

The school district provided no further information on the incident.

People v. Preds

“People v. Preds” is a series compiled by people who run internet stings in order to catch online predators.

In the 30-minute video posted Wednesday, the man identified as “David” is confronted by the host of the show in a parking lot in San Diego.

There, the anonymous host, while filming, claims David set up a meeting with a 14-year-old boy after chatting with the boy on Grindr, a gay dating app. The “boy” was actually the host.

The host, using his own phone, shows David photos that were allegedly sent to the boy.

Confirmed Photo



“Why do I have your picture on my phone at the spot you were coming to meet me?” the cameraman asked David. “Make that add up for me.”

David admitted the picture was of him, but said he did not know how the host got it.

The host follows David through the parking lot, asking him why he was in the area at that time. He refers to David as a “pedo” and screams at him during the confrontation.

David calls 911 during the confrontation to report harassment by the host and repeatedly denies allegations that he was in the parking lot to meet a boy.

Text Messages



Screenshots said to be from the Grindr conversation between David and the host are shown on the video.

The text exchanges show David asking the host if he is interested in older men. Once the host announces he is only 14, David asks if the “boy” has had sex. David also alludes to being sexually aroused, but offers to meet the boy in public to just talk.

David, who identifies himself as “Edward” in the course of the texts, also asks if the “boy” is interested in bondage.

Police Arrive



Later, police arrive and speak to David. No audio of the exchange between the two men and the officers can be heard, but Shaw is seen getting a ride from officers at the end of the video.

A “People v. Preds” volunteer who declined to identify himself told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that he was glad to see Shaw dismissed from his job at the school district and hoped that the former educator would be prosecuted in some way.

“I don’t think people who are trying to meet up with minors for an alleged sexual encounter should get to teach children,” he said. “The overall goal is to protect children, so when somebody is a position of authority like that, working directly with children, there is a sense of concern.”

The volunteer confirmed that the YouTube video was the same one sent to Sublette County school officials this week.

The San Diego Police Department is currently investigating the allegations and did not respond to Cowboy State Daily’s multiple requests for comment on Friday.

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Wyo School Superintendents Average $141,00 Per Year; 22% Higher Than Recommended By Legislature

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming school district superintendents last year were paid 22% more than what was recommended by the Legislature – but many education leaders say the higher wage is just right.   

Nearly all of the state’s school district boards of trustees paid their superintendents more in the past decade than what was recommended by the Legislature, according to the 2022 CRERW, or Continued Review of Educational Resources in Wyoming report.  

Superintendents’ annual salaries in the 2020-2021 school year averaged $141,358, about $25,000 more than the the 2021 recommendation of $116,016.

Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said the school boards, not lawmakers, have the salaries right.  

“The actual salaries the districts expend are much more realistic as a representation of the market,” said Farmer, referencing a 2020 funding study which “basically said that the model funding is insufficient and that we are losing ground to our surrounding states.”  

Colorado school superintendents make a median wage of $168,000 per year, according to salary.com.  

High salaries in surrounding states, the reduced appeal of remote communities, increasing salaries nationwide and retention difficulties in Wyoming all are factors supporting the higher pay, Farmer said.  

Wyoming spent about $1.8 billion on K-12 education in the 2020-21 school year – up more than $100 million from the previous year. Of that, about $891 million was spent on instructional salaries and benefits. School districts spent about $8 million less than the Legislature’s model suggested for operations and maintenance, $7 million less on professional development, and about $1 million less on vocational education supplies – leaving some spending flexibility in the allotted block grant.  

Ghost Employees 

Another reason school boards often have leeway to pay school superintendents and other staff more, Farmer said, is because state analysts expect them to hire more staff than they do.  

“‘Ghost employee’ is a term the Legislature uses, and what they mean is the model allocates a certain number of people for staffing,” he said. 

For instance, he continued, if a school district is recommended to have 600 teachers but only has 550, the salaries slated for “those 50 teachers you’re short” can be redistributed to the existing staff.  

“The model is really just the best guess of the consultants, of what it would take to run a school district,” he said.  

Teachers also made more than the model suggested in 2021 – but at a slimmer margin. School boards on average paid teachers 11%, or just under $6,000, more than the suggested salary.  

Principals made 14% more than model figures; assistant principals came in at 20% higher. Assistant superintendents and business managers averaged roughly 25% more in salaries than the model recommended.   

Local Control 

State Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said salaries veer from the legislative model because Wyoming is a “local control state.” 

“There’s a lot of resentment about (the salaries),” said Paxton, who chairs the House Committee on Education. “Every year, legislators who are about as far right as you can get look at the salaries for the superintendent and really shudder at giving any kind of financial boost.”

But, he added, “the school boards are the ones that set that salary when they’re recruiting superintendents.”

Paxton said the higher salaries are evidence of tempting wages in other areas and difficulties retaining and recruiting qualified leaders.  

He also noted that some regions in Wyoming have an above-average cost of living.  

The Teton County School District 1 superintendent made $209,858 last year, which was the highest salary in any district.  

Spending Among Highest in Nation 

Wyoming has the highest per-student expenditures in the region and is 11th in the nation at $17,631 per pupil per year, more than $3,000 greater than the national average and more than $4,000 greater than the highest play in surrounding states, found in Colorado.  

Wyoming receives less than one-fifth the federal funding Colorado receives, at just under $1 million in 2019 compared to Colorado’s $5.2 million. 

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Megan Degenfelder Enters Superintendent Race, Says Voices Of Parents Being Silenced

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

A former state Department of Education official who unsuccessfully sought to replace former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is running for the superintendent’s position, she announced Thursday.

Megan Degenfelder, a former chief policy officer for the state Department of Education, said during a video news conference she is running for the office in part to address problems caused by anti-American values in education and a silencing of the voices of parents.

“Opportunities for Wyoming students are slipping away as we see anti-American values creeping into the classroom, voices of parents being silenced, and future job opportunities being threatened,” she said. “But this state is full of exceptional parents, teachers and business leaders and if we all work together, we can truly accomplish great things for the future generations in this state.”

Degenfelder was one of four people seeking the state Republican Party’s nomination to serve as interim superintendent of public instruction after Balow resigned to take a similar position in Virginia. She finished fourth in voting by the party’s central committee in January and Gov. Mark Gordon selected the third-place finisher, Brian Schroeder, to finish out Balow’s unexpired term, which ends in December.

Schroeder has already announced he will seek election to a full term in the office.

If elected, Degendelder said she plans to put parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to their children’s education.

“Parents know what is best for their kids, and they deserve not only a seat at the table, but they deserve increased transparency and greater choices for their kids,” she said. “No parent should ever be silenced in the education of their kids.”

Another area that she said she would focus on if elected is bridging the gap between the Department of Education and private sector to let every district determine its educational needs based on that community’s workforce so that graduates are prepared for employment opportunities in Wyoming’s workforce.

Other goals, she said, would be to prioritize education funding so that money stays in “the classroom where it belongs with students and teachers, not central administration.”

School choice is another area she championed, particularly when it comes to letting parents and students choose the best school for their needs, whether that be public, private or Christian charter schools.

“The more choices, truly the better,” she said.

Another area she would prioritize are K-3 literacy rates. She said in 2021, only about 50% of third-grade students were performing at the advanced or even proficient level in English language arts.

“It’s not good enough, and we can do better,” she said. “And there’s some exciting momentum that’s occurring through the state Legislature right now…and I think that needs to be our priority focus.”

Degendelder touted her experience as in education and the private sector, pointing to her work in the oil and natural gas industry for Southland Royalty Company and Cloud Peak Energy.

Degenfelder, who said she is a sixth-generation Wyomingite, is a graduate of the University of Wyoming with an undergraduate degree in economics and political science and master’s degree in economics.

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Teacher Shortage Hits Wyoming; Legislator Says It’s Top Priority For State

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily 

The national shortage in teachers has reached Wyoming.  

Multiple education experts blamed the pandemic for an apparent shortfall of prospective teachers for Wyoming’s K-12 schools. But some disagreed on the pandemic’s actual effect.  

“We’re starting to see the very beginnings of a teacher shortage across the state,” said Wyoming Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, “and maybe COVID had something to do with that.”  

Paxton worked in education for 34 years and now co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.

Paxton said many superintendents and principals have reported difficulties hiring and getting responses to job openings. He said the issue is so pressing that he intends to bring it as a top priority for interim legislative work to the Legislature’s Management Council this Friday.  

Wyoming’s brief school shutdown in the spring of 2020 and the mask mandate that followed were, Paxton said, not as severe as measures undertaken by other states – but still enough to cause teacher burnout.  

“You try to keep a mask on a 4-year-old kid for a while and see how that winds up,” said Paxton, adding that social distancing was another hurdle for a teacher overseeing a troop of little ones for seven hours.  

Another difficulty, he said, could be that policies trickling down from faraway government leaders don’t suit local sentiments.  

“Teaching critical race theory in classrooms is certainly a factor. It hasn’t hit Wyoming like it’s hit a lot of other states,” said Paxton. “But when parents see some of the things that are happening nationally, they start applying that to their local (schools) and even though it may not be a problem immediately, it certainly is a concern for them.”  

Critical race theory is a racially-focused curriculum positing that patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions. 

Dwindling Degrees 

Fewer University of Wyoming students are pursuing education degrees each year and fewer still are receiving them.  

According to a September 2021 report to the Legislature, the number of bachelor’s degrees in education awarded by the UW has fallen from 255 in 2010 to 170 in 2021.

UW undergraduates majoring in education in 2010 numbered about 1,250. In 2020 and 2021, that number flatlined at about 700.  

Recruitment 

One of the real struggles, said Wyoming Indian Schools Superintendent Stephanie Zickefoose, isn’t necessarily filling the slots – it’s choosing the right candidates from a shrinking application pool every time a job comes up.  

Zickefoose added that she has worked in other districts in Wyoming over the past 10 years and has seen a steady decline in interest in teaching to which pandemic struggles may have contributed.  

“For Fremont (County School District No.) 14, we haven’t seen a lot of (COVID burnout),” said Zickefoose, but the biggest remaining restriction “is the masking mandate: we’re still under the tribal regulations.”  

Because Wyoming Indian is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, it’s subject to a reservation-wide mask mandate, the only one still in place in the state.  

“Our district doesn’t mandate vaccinations, as some of the other reservation districts do,” she said. “So we haven’t necessarily seen a huge (staffing) effect from the Covid restrictions.”  

The pandemic may be a chief deterrent preventing some young people from going to school to obtain a teaching degree, Zickefoose added.  

Vacancies 

The teacher shortage predates COVID, but the pandemic didn’t help the situation, said Stephanie Thompson, vice chair for the Sweetwater County School District No. 1 school board.  

“We’ve had a teacher shortage for years,” said Thompson. “I would say we probably felt it before some of the state.” 

However, the district’s current vacancy notice is alarming, Thompson added. 

“Just looking at that list, I get anxiety,” she said. “How are we going to fill all those positions?” 

“COVID took such a strain on our staff, our students, our district, and I think we’re going to be seeing the impact for years, to be honest,” she continued.  

The Rock Springs district has tried to stimulate interest in teaching by switching to a four-day school schedule and allowing teachers more professional development time.  

‘Crisis Mode’ For Subs Too 

There’s also a shortage of substitute teachers, said Marguerite Herman, school board vice chair for Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, the state’s most populous district.  

“Substitutes are kind of in crisis mode as well,” said Herman, who said the education spending plan passed last month by the Legislature may not have accounted sufficiently for the inflation now seen in Wyoming and across the nation.  

“There’s supposed to be a recognition of the cost of education, inflation, whatever pressures – utilities – and they’ve denied a huge increase in personnel external cost adjustment… and that’s going to ripple through,” she said.”  

Education funding has been a difficult topic in legislative budget sessions in recent years, with delegates in both chambers saying the school budget suffers from a “structural deficit.”  

Herman acknowledged COVID burnout as well, as “teachers had to keep a whole different set of balls up in the air.”  

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Wyoming Economist, Former Legislator Differ On Student Loan Debt Cancellation

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Wyoming economist and attorney are at odds over whether the cancellation of the nation’s $1.6 trillion in student loan debt would be a good thing.

In late February, the former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King called on President Joe Biden to cancel the student loan debt that hangs over the heads of about 42 million.

The average student loan debt is around $36,000. The federal government issues and owns about 92% of the nation’s student loan debt.

Economist and state Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, told Cowboy State Daily earlier this month that if Biden were to cancel student loan debt, it could set a troubling example.

“It’s kind of a bad precedent to think you can go to college, borrow lots of money and expect it to be forgiven,” he said. “From an economic point of view, this would probably lead you to over-borrow and buy too much education, if you have the expectation that it’s going to be forgiven.”

Case added that people who go into debt might have the expectation that other loans might be forgiven, such as credit card or mortgage debt.

“It strikes me that people need to make better decisions about education,” Case said. “It’s really expensive and it’s not for everybody. I think a lot of people underestimate what a university education is going to cost compared to what it’s really worth to them.”

Case also questioned if Biden had the authority to make a move such as canceling student loan debt.

During the 2020 presidential campaign and early in his presidency, Biden said he would be open to eliminating at least $10,000 in student debt per borrower. According to The Hill, other prominent lawmakers have called on him to act on this promise, as well as increase the limit up to $50,000 per borrower.

Laramie attorney and former legislator Charles Pelkey told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday that by canceling even some student debt, the impact on the economy will be positive.

“Look at what’s happened with the student loan payment deferral, families have been able to buy homes or help with daycare costs,” he said. “These are people who were paying anywhere from 10% to 20% of their monthly income on student loan debt beforehand.”

While he understood Case’s concerns about the precedent student loan debt cancellation could set, Pelkey thought the idea of limiting the cancellation only to student loans and capping the amount, as proposed, was a good one.

Pelkey said he believes education should be free, but in the same way fire services and public roads are technically free.

“It’s not free, but it’s a cost we should all bear in society, because we do benefit from having an educated workforce,” he said.

A moratorium on student loan payments was enacted during former President Donald Trump’s administration after the coronavireus pandemic hit and it has been extended several times since Biden took office.

Biden has canceled some student loan debt, although his actions were aimed largely at marginalized populations such as people with disabilities, those who work in public service and people who were defrauded by their institutions, particularly those who enrolled in for-profit colleges.

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No Critical Race Theory Bills Made It Through 2022 Wyoming Legislative Session

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The three pieces of legislation related to the controversial topic of critical race theory that were proposed in the Wyoming Legislature this session have all died.

Senate File 103 was the third and last of the bills that was still working its way through the legislative process, but ultimately failed to win a review from the House on Tuesday in time to be considered for this session.

SF103 would have banned all schools and colleges that are supported in any manner by public funds from teaching “divisive tenets often described as a critical race theory that inflames divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the wellbeing of the state of Wyoming and its residents.”

The bill was co-sponsored by five senators, including Sens. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, and Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne.

With the killing of all three critical bills aimed at restricting the teaching critical race theory, Bouchard told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that Wyoming may lose its designation as a “red state.”

“By contrast, Florida’s Legislature regularly passes conservative legislation and before the ink dries, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it,” Bouchard said.

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 97, would have prevented any teacher, administrator or school employee from using public money for instruction that assigns any blame or judgment for societal developments on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, color or national origin.

HB97 sponsor Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, told Cowboy State Daily that is was disappointing and disturbing that all three of the CRT bills were killed this session.

“Critical race theory is totally inconsistent with our Wyoming values,” Gray said. “I plan on continuing to work on banning critical race theory.”

While debating HB97, Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, gave a brief, impassioned speech about why his colleagues should not move the bill forward.

“This bill…states the teaching of history must be neutral and without judgment. Now, how can that be possible?” Schwartz said. “If I were a Native American, I doubt I could accept the neutral, judgment-free approach about the relocation and decimation of the Indigenous population. I’m Jewish, I cannot accept the neutral, judgment-free approach on the murder of 6 million Jews in World War II.”

Schwartz told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that teaching history has great value, but with that, educators must look at both the good and bad points of history.

“Everything’s not always good, our founding fathers were not perfect,” Schwartz said. “To be able to teach both sides, you can’t be constrained.”

He said that HB97 would have constrained teachers, which is why he argued against it earlier in the session. He added that it is not the job of the Wyoming Legislature to decide what is taught in K-12 schools.

The “Civics Transparency Act,” which would have required online publication of all instructional materials used by K-12 public schools in the state, died on a vote of 5-4 in the House Education Committee earlier this week.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

The Saratoga school district’s board of trustees voted in October to ban the teaching of critical race theory in its schools.

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Civics Transparency Bill Dies In Wyoming House Education Committee

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would have required teachers to post their class materials online for public view has died in a Wyoming House of Representatives committee meeting.

The “Civics Transparency Act,” which would have required online publication of all instructional materials used by K-12 public schools in the state, died on a vote of 5-4 in the House Education Committee.

The bill was rejected by the committee after several speakers criticized it as an unwarranted burden on the state’s teachers.

Wyoming Education Association president Grady Hutcherson said that the bill had an unintended consequence of demoralizing teachers in the state.

“It’s an insult to me as a professional, that I have to be micromanaged to this level,” he told the education committee. “We know that this bill is supposed to be about transparency. We wholeheartedly believe in transparency. We know the value of the parents’ involvement in the education process.

“Parents could come into my classroom anytime they wanted,” he continued. “So all of these things are already in place. That’s why the unintended consequence of this transparency bill is more about political rhetoric than being respectful of professional educators.”

Tim Mullen, government relations director with the Wyoming Department of Education, raised similar points. He also pointed out that there could be undue burden not only on Wyoming’s teachers, but its administrators, with trying to implement this new law into the schools.

“The idea that we don’t have transparency, or there’s a problem with transparency, in the state of Wyoming, we believe that nothing could be further from the truth,” Mullen said.

The bill was killed despite testimony from bill co-sponsor Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, that the bill is all about transparency in Wyoming’s education.

“What this bill is, is what the title says: transparency,” Driskill said. “Transparency means you put it up where you find it. I admire our teachers in what they do, unabashedly. Does this mean we shouldn’t be transparent in the materials we’re using?”

The bill was related to the critical race theory debate that was sparked last fall.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines for American history and civics education grant programs which encourage schools to use curriculum related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

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Bill Requiring Teachers To Post Class Materials Online Clears Wyoming Senate

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill aimed at preventing the teaching of critical race theory by requiring teachers to post online the teaching materials they use in class cleared the Wyoming Senate on Monday.

Senate File 62, the “Civics Transparency Act” has now been sent to the Wyoming House of Representatives for introduction sometime this week. It passed the Senate without debate on its third reading Monday on a vote of 18-12.

The legislation would require online publication of all instructional materials used by K-12 public schools in the state.

“This bill has been portrayed as a huge bill, and it’s actually a pretty simple little bill,” co-sponsor Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said when the bill was introduced. “It does something we all look for all the time in this body, which is transparency and accountability.”

The bill is related to the critical race theory debate that was sparked last fall.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Rather than an outright ban on critical race theory, Driskill said SF62 would require schools to post an online description of materials are being used to teach so members of the public have a chance to give some input on those materials.

“It doesn’t say what they can use for materials, all it says is they have to put them online so parents and certain citizens can look at them and see what we’re doing,” Driskill said. “Controversial materials are really a good thing in our youth, as long as they’re balanced and they get a chance to see both sides.”

Driskill said he knew a balanced approach would not always be possible, but that learning about controversial subjects and opposing viewpoints made for well-rounded adults.

He also pointed out that no teachers would be penalized for not putting their materials online and that he did not want to affect teachers’ ability to teach. Rather, he just wanted educators to be transparent about what they were using for lessons.

The Civics Transparency Act was actually proposed last fall by Driskill and Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton. It was also endorsed by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines for American history and civics education grant programs which encourage schools to use curriculum related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

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Senate Passes Bill Banning Critical Race Theory, Now Headed To House

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would prevent the teaching of critical race theory in Wyoming won final approval from the Senate on Wednesday and sent to the House of Representatives.

Senate File 103 passed the Senate on a vote of 25-4.

The bill states that all schools and colleges that are supported in any manner by public funds shall not teach “divisive tenets often described as a critical race theory that inflames divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the wellbeing of the state of Wyoming and its residents.”

Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, told his colleagues during the floor debate that the bill does not limit what instructors can teach when it comes to dark events in history, such as slavery and the Holocaust, just that they cannot teach it in certain ways.

“The bill spells out what we’re not going to do when teaching history,” Biteman said. “Their instructional personnel may facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in an age-appropriate manner, topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination.”

The bill was amended before the debate on Wednesday to add clarifying language about how children should be taught sensitive subjects, with the amendment stating that instruction on those topics and any supporting materials should be consistent with certain principles of individual freedom, such as the idea that no person is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, voiced his opposition to the amendment during the debate.

“When I read [the amendment] now, it does start to sound like there’s an agenda,” he said. “No doubt many members of this Senate agree with every statement on this page, but that’s not our responsibility to determine what is truth. It’s scary when this Legislature gets to determine what is truth. It’s very much outside the bounds of inappropriate legislative action when we are dictating truth through statute.”

Biteman said he intent of his amendment was the opposite of critical race theory and added the reason the bill itself was brought forward to begin with was to stop teaching children that one race is inherently better than the other.

“If we allow critical race theory in our schools, Martin Luther King, everything he fought for is out the window if we allow that kind of poison in our schools,” he said.

The bill is co-sponsored by five senators, including Biteman, Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, and Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

SF103 is the third CRT-related bill that has been proposed this legislative session. One that outright banned the teaching of the theory, House Bill 97, failed to win introduction last week.

The third bill, the “Civics Transparency Act,” which would require teachers to share online the materials they use to teach for review by parents and community, has been introduced and referred to the Senate Education Committee.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines for American history and civics education grant programs which encourage schools to use curriculum related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

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After Bus Driver Fails DUI Test, Cheyenne Schools Implementing New Training

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Cheyenne school district is implementing a new round of mandatory drug and alcohol awareness training after one of its bus drivers was arrested last week for driving under the influence while transporting students out-of-state.

Laramie County School District No. 1 spokeswoman Mary Quast told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that the training would be put in place within the next couple of weeks.

In response to last week’s incident, the Transportation Department is instituting new mandatory drug and alcohol awareness training within the next couple of weeks,” she said. “In about a month, the Transportation Department is introducing an annual recertification class for drug and alcohol awareness that all existing drivers will be required to take.”

The annual recertification class will become part of the training that existing bus drivers are required to take every August during their three-day in-service training prior to the start of the school year.

Quast did note that in order to obtain a commercial drivers license and serve as an LCSD1 bus driver, drivers must go through at least six weeks of training of a variety of subjects, including drug and alcohol awareness. This is required for drivers to obtain their CDL.

David Richard Williams, 60, was arrested by a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper last week for driving under the influence and possession of open container while operating a moving vehicle while transporting students to a speech and debate tournament in Spearfish, South Dakota.

He was stopped, failed a field sobriety test and was then arrested.

Quast said that the morning after the arrest, LCSD1 transportation Administrator Adam Greenwood met with all the district bus drivers in person to re-emphasize the importance of student safety.

LCSD1 officials have not commented specifically about the arrest, citing personnel reasons.

“At Laramie County School District 1 student safety is our priority,” Superintendent Margaret Crespo said last week. “In every instance, while we have  students in our care and a situation occurs, we will act first to ensure our kids remain safe. After this occurs, we switch to communication mode.”

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Wyoming Senate Approves Critical Race Theory Bill For Second Reading

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Senate on Tuesday moved a bill preventing the teaching of critical race theory in Wyoming schools onto a third and final Senate review.

Senate File 103 states that all schools and colleges that are supported in any manner by public funds shall not teach “divisive tenets often described as a critical race theory that inflames divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the wellbeing of the state of Wyoming and its residents.”

The bill was approved in its second reading Tuesday with no debate. It is awaiting a third and final vote in the Senate.

The bill is co-sponsored by five senators, including Sens. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, and Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne.

However, Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that this latest critical race theory-related bill proposed in the Legislature is “unnecessary.”

“Nobody is teaching this theory,” he said. “It will never occur in the Wyoming K-12 school system. This is a college-level theory.”

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

SF103 is the third CRT-related bill that has been proposed this legislative session. One that outright banned the teaching of the theory, House Bill 97, failed to meet the standards for introduction last week.

Schwartz gave an impassioned, if brief, testimony last week during debate, asking for colleagues to reject HB97.

“This bill…states the teaching of history must be neutral and without judgment. Now, how can that be possible?” Schwartz said at the time. “If I were a Native American, I doubt I could accept the neutral, judgment-free approach about the relocation and decimation of the Indigenous population. I’m Jewish, I cannot accept the neutral, judgment-free approach on the murder of 6 million Jews in World War II.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said the bill did not require a “neutral” approach to lessons, but that it did require a “complete and active perspective” of historic events.

The third bill, the “Civics Transparency Act,” which would require teachers to share the materials they use to instruct online for parents and community members to view, has been introduced and referred to the Senate Education Committee. The act was actually proposed last fall by Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and was endorsed by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines for American history and civics education grant programs which encourage schools to use curriculum related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

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Hot Springs School District Removes Facebook Post Showing Students Using Air Rifles After Some Found it “Offensive”

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A picture of Thermopolis students participating in an air rifle program caused some controversy online after it went viral last week, prompting the Hot Springs County School District No. 1 to remove the photo from social media.

Last week, the district shared a photo of some fifth- and sixth- grade students from Thermopolis Middle School working on their marksmanship with air rifles.

“Mr. Deromedi’s 5/6th PE classes are working on their marksmanship with air rifles!” the now-deleted post stated. “All students passed their safety test and have been sharpening their skills.”

Without explaining why the school district removed the post, Superintendent Dustin Hunt said he regretted that it was “found offensive by others.”

“As a small rural Wyoming community with a K-12 district of 681 students, we maintain social media pages primarily to celebrate our students and inform our patrons,” Superintendent Dustin Hunt said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our intent is to simply share the excellent work being done by our students and staff and we regret that any of our content is found offensive by others.”

When the post went viral, accumulating more than 66,000 shares and 6,000 comments, it attracted a mix of comments both supportive and critical of children being taught marksmanship.

As to its removal, however, the superintendent’s office has not returned Cowboy State Daily’s phone call asking why.

Republican Wyoming gubernatorial candidate Aaron Nab chimed in, however, condemning the decision to remove the post.

“Hot Springs County School District made this post on their Facebook last week and now the post is gone, most likely due to some people being cry babies,” Nab said Tuesday. “I fully support what the District was doing with this. This needs to be going on in schools across Wyoming.”

Hunt said the air rifle program has been in place at the middle school for seven years, but other firearm and archery units and programs have been a part of the school and community for much longer.

“The air rifle unit is three weeks in length and part of a larger lifetime activity-based physical education program,” he said. “Students wishing to not participate in any unit including the air rifle unit are offered an alternative assignment. To date, no students have requested an alternate unit or assignment. The district has also not fielded any parent complaints regarding the air rifle unit.”

Wyoming allows gun safety courses to be taught in public schools.

Hunt also pointed out that in Wyoming, the vast majority of households have firearms and said it was important for students to safely learn about and respect things they will encounter in their everyday lives.

“In Wyoming our residents spend a good portion of their lives outdoors for recreation and work,” he said. “It is important to teach students skills in physical education that support their development in the lifetime activities that are common and prevalent in our community and state. Our state has a proud hunting/outdoor heritage with significant participation from youth residents.”

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Schroeder Sworn In As Wyoming Superintendent Of Public Instruction

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

After more than two weeks of controversy, Wyoming has a new education chief.

Brian Schroeder was sworn in as the superintendent of public instruction on Friday afternoon. He will finish outthe unexpired term of former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, which ends in serve in January 2023.

Schroeder was chosen by Gov. Mark Gordon last week after interviews with three potential candidates who were nominated for the job by the Wyoming Republican Party.

“I reviewed application materials and conducted interviews with all the candidates that came through the selection process, and after much prayer and careful consideration I have determined that Brian Schroeder is best-suited to fill the Superintendent’s position,” Gordon said last week after announcing Schroeder’s appointment.

“Brian demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that parents are intricately involved in their children’s education, just as it should be. I will work to ensure a smooth transition in leadership for the Wyoming Department of Education,” he added.

Schroeder is a longtime educator who has worked in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming, serving most recently as the head of Veritas Academy. a private Christian school in Cody. He has also worked as a family and youth counselor for nearly 20 years and spent nearly a decade in pastoral ministry.

“I am honored and humbled beyond words at this incredible opportunity to serve the students, teachers and parents of Wyoming,” Schroeder said. “I’ll do my best to help strengthen education for the future of our state.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Maranatha Baptist University and holds a masters degree in Professional Counseling from Liberty University.

In his application for the position, Schroeder spoke of the importance of schools to society.

“The local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society,” he wrote in his application for the job.

“There is, therefore, no work on earth more important than what we do as teachers (outside of parenting, of course), which makes the top teacher job in the state all the more critical by way of providing the necessary leadership and direction to our schools,” he wrote.

Schroeder is replacing Balow, who abruptly resigned in mid-January to take a similar, but appointed, position with the state of Virginia.

lawsuit was filed last week challenging the constitutionality of the process used by the Republican party to winnow down the 12 applicants for the job to three finalists and a temporary restraining order was requested to block Gordon from appointing a successor to Balow. However, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl denied the request, allowing Gordon to choose a new superintendent.

Proceedings on the lawsuit itself will continue even though the request for the temporary restraining order was denied.

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Schroeder Appointed To Wyoming Superintendent Of Public Instruction

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A longtime educator who is now the head of a private school in Cody has been selected Wyoming’s new superintendent of public instruction, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Thursday.

Gordon said Brian Schroeder will finish out the unexpired term of Jillian Balow, who resigned earlier this month to take over as superintendent of schools in Virginia.

“I reviewed application materials and conducted interviews with all the candidates that came through the selection process, and after much prayer and careful consideration I have determined that Brian Schroeder is best-suited to fill the Superintendent’s position,” Gordon said.

“Brian demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that parents are intricately involved in their children’s education, just as it should be. I will work to ensure a smooth transition in leadership for the Wyoming Department of Education,” he added.

Schroeder is a longtime educator who has worked in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming, serving most recently as the head of Veritas Academy in Cody. He has also worked as a family and youth counselor for nearly 20 years and spent nearly a decade in pastoral ministry.

“I am honored and humbled beyond words at this incredible opportunity to serve the students, teachers and parents of Wyoming,” Schroeder said. “I’ll do my best to help strengthen education for the future of our state.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Maranatha Baptist University and holds a masters degree in Professional Counseling from Liberty University.

In his application for the position, Schroeder spoke of the importance of schools to society.

“The local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society,” he wrote in his application for the job.

“There is, therefore, no work on earth more important than what we do as teachers (outside of parenting, of course), which makes the top teacher job in the state all the more critical by way of providing the necessary leadership and direction to our schools,” he wrote.

Schroeder was one of three candidates selected by the Wyoming Republican Party central committee over the weekend to interview with Gordon. About a dozen candidates applied Balow’s position, including former legislators and educators.

A lawsuit was filed this week challenging the constitutionality of the selection process and a temporary restraining order was requested to block Gordon from appointing a successor to Balow. However, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl denied the request earlier Thursday, allowing Gordon to choose a successor.

Proceedings on the lawsuit itself will continue even though the request for the temporary restraining order was denied.

RELATED: Despite Failed Lawsuit, Plaintiffs Hope Legislature Will Change Nomination Process for Vacant Seats

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Gordon Opposes Halt On Superintendent Pick, Says He’s Upholding The Law

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon is asking a federal court to allow him to follow Wyoming law and proceed with the appointment of a new superintendent of public instruction.

Gordon, in a court brief filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, asked Judge Scott Skavdahl to deny a request for a temporary restraining order that would prevent him from appointing a new superintendent to finish out the term of Jillian Balow in accordance with state law.

“As the duly elected governor of the state of Wyoming, Gov. Gordon has taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state …” the brief said. “Thus, Gov. Gordon’s interest in this matter is to comply with Wyoming law and fulfill his duties as the governor.”

Balow resigned earlier this month to take a similar job in Virginia.

Under state law, Gordon is to appoint a replacement by midnight Thursday from a list of nominees provided by the central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party.

The party’s central committee on Saturday selected three nominees from a field of 12 applicants.

However, the selection process is being challenged by a bipartisan group of Wyoming residents in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges that the selection process used by the central committee violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.

According to the lawsuit, because the central committee is made up of three representatives of each county, when making decisions such as selecting nominees for the superintendent’s job, counties with smaller populations have a disproportionately large influence on the outcome.

The process violates the concept of “one man, one vote,” according to the lawsuit.

The request for a temporary restraining order aimed at blocking Gordon from acting on the vacancy was filed at the same as the lawsuit.

Skavdahl was expected to rule on the request by noon Thursday.

Gordon, in his brief opposing the order, noted that the lawsuit challenges the way the GOP selects nominees, not the way he selects replacements for statewide office.

“Even so, the governor does have an interest in being able to exercise his required duties under Wyoming statute as well as in seeing a vacancy in an executive branch office filled expeditiously,” the filing said.

The nominee selection process within the party does not violate the “one man, one vote” rule as alleged in the lawsuit, the brief said.

“This statutory process did not deprive Wyoming voters of fair and effective representation, regardless of the procedure the committee followed to select the nominees,” it said.

A temporary restraining order is often issued when it is likely that a lawsuit will be successful. Gordon’s brief, however, said it is unlikely the plaintiffs will succeed, so the restraining order should not be issued.

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Eathorne Calls Plaintiffs In Superintendent Lawsuit “RINOs,” “Cheney Supporters”

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne lashed out Wednesday at the multiple plaintiffs who brought a lawsuit against the party over the way it selected nominees for an open statewide office, calling them “RINOs” and “Cheney supporters.”

Eathorne noted the lawsuit filed Tuesday took aim at the party for following state rules that have been in place for decades for picking nominees to fill open state offices.

“Grassroots Republicans are being sued, by Democrats and a handful of self-important RINOs and (U.S. Rep. Liz) Cheney supporters, for following the law and completing its role in sending 3 names to the Governor so he can fill the vacancy created when Jillian Balow resigned, the same way elected official vacancies have been filled for decades in our state,” Eathorne said.  

Balow resigned as superintendent of public instruction earlier this month to take a similar position in Virginia. Under Wyoming law, Gov. Mark Gordon is to select a replacement to finish her unexpired term — which runs until January 2023 — from a list of three nominees submitted by the Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee.

The lawsuit alleges that because the central committee is made up of three representatives from each county, counties with smaller populations have a greater influence over such decisions than counties with large populations, a violation of the equal protection clause of the Wyoming and U.S. constitutions.

Eathorne said on Wednesday that for the plaintiffs, the situation was not about the Constitution, but about control.

“If you ever wondered what Wyoming’s self-appointed good ol’ boys club looks like, this is it – former and current newspaper owners, Democrats, high-level university administrators, former legislators, wealthy elite, self-important Cheyenne lawyers, and all represented by Democrat (Former Gov. Dave) Freudenthal’s former Attorney General, Pat Crank,” he said.

He added that the plaintiffs had one thing in common: none of them were currently elected to serve Wyoming Republicans.

“They represent Wyoming’s past, full of smoky back rooms and political side deals,” Eathorne said. “They cannot stand that the Wyoming Republican grassroots has risen up and can outvote the lobbyists and lawyers who have controlled Wyoming politics in the past. These are the same people who support Liz Cheney, fight to preserve the ability for Democrats to crossover and interfere in Wyoming Republican primaries, vigorously oppose runoff elections, and seek to tear down and defeat Conservative principles.”

The party’s central committee selected three nominees for Gordon’s consideration from a field of 12 applicants during a meeting Saturday.

Gordon interviewed the three Tuesday and, by law, is to select a replacement for Balow by midnight Thursday. Gordon has been ordered by a federal judge not to make the selection before midnight Thursday to give the parties in the lawsuit a chance to comment on a request for a temporary restraining order that would block Gordon from picking any of the nominees.

Eathorne said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit view certain Republicans as “pawns on their chess board who are expendable in the service of their king.”

“The current leaders of the Wyoming Republican Party view grassroots Republicans much differently,” Eathorne said. “We view you as our friends and neighbors, the voters who elected precinct men and women all over the State, who have worked hard and tamed this western landscape we call home. We have held town halls to encourage the grassroots all over the State to let their voices be heard on issues important to their communities, about Liz Cheney’s treasonous behavior, and the overreaching COVID shutdown of Wyoming’s small business, churches, and gathering places.”

He added that the plaintiffs have argued an unelected bureaucrat should remain in Balow’s position instead of adhering to the process set forth in law to fill the vacancy. Eathorne pointed out that Kari Eakins, the interim superintendent, is a Democrat, which she has been registered as since 2010.

“At a time when Wyoming needs this Superintendent to stand up to Joe Biden’s radical agenda and defend Wyoming’s children, they want an unelected Democrat to fill that role rather than follow a statutory process that they have never complained about before,” Eathorne said.

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Federal Judge Tells Governor Not To Appoint New Superintendent

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Gov. Mark Gordon not to appoint a new superintendent of public instruction until at least midnight Thursday.

Judge Scott Skavdahl ordered a brief halt to the process of appointing a new superintendent until he can hear arguments on a temporary restraining order that would block Gordon from naming a new superintendent from a list of three nominees he was given by the Wyoming Republican Party.

“Having conferred with counsel for the parties, and in order to allow and consider input from all defendants, it is hereby ordered that Governor Gordon shall not fill the vacant position of superintendent of public instruction with any candidate forwarded to him by the (Republican Party) …” the order said.

Skavdahl said a decision on the temporary restraining order will be issued before midnight Thursday, which is the deadline under state law for Gordon to appoint a new superintendent.

The order stems from a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Wyoming Republican Party and its chairman Frank Eathorne by 16 individuals, including a number of former legislators, alleging that the system the party used to select nominees for the post is unconstitutional.

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow resigned earlier this month to take a similar position in Virginia. Under Wyoming law, Gordon is to select a replacement to finish her unexpired term — which runs until January 2023 — from a list of three nominees submitted by the Wyoming Republican Party.

The party’s central committee, made up of three representatives from each county, selected three nominees for Gordon’s consideration from a field of 12 applicants during a meeting Saturday.

But the lawsuit, filed by former Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank, said giving each county three representatives violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions because it gives counties with small populations more influence in such decisions than counties with large populations.

A request for a temporary restraining order filed with the lawsuit asked that Gordon be prevented from selecting a replacement for Balow from the list of nominees submitted by the party because the nominees were selected in an unconstitutional manner.

Skavdahl’s order prohibits Gordon from acting on the nominees, who he interviewed Tuesday, until the judge can issue a decision on the request for a temporary restraining order.

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Investigation Underway As Parents, Players Accuse Cheyenne Football Coach of Bullying, Retaliation

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

The parents of some Cheyenne Central High School football players have been joined by two legislators in asking Laramie School District No. 1 to look into allegations of bullying and excessive verbal abuse by a coach toward student athletes at Central.

At least two parents also allege that after they told Central High administrators about their concerns surrounding Michael Apodaca, their children were targeted for retribution — prompting them to ask the school district itself to look into the allegations. 

The lack of response by Cheyenne Central also moved Sen. Affie Ellis and Rep. Jared Olsen, both R-Cheyenne, to voice their concerns in a Nov. 30 letter to district Superintendent Margaret Crespo.

In their joint letter, the legislators said they had received “multiple reports” from parents of student athletes regarding Apodaca’s conduct.

“Parents have expressed a lack of trust in the administrative process for addressing bullying complaints, and thus, have asked for our help to find protection for their children from an improper culture of harassment occurring on school grounds by Laramie County School District #1 (district) staff,” they said in the letter. 

These complaints specifically, they continued, were related to “numerous reports that student athletes were subjected to abusive and personally degrading verbal attacks that went far beyond anything that could be construed as providing constructive athletic coaching.”

The legislators added although the abuse was seemingly targeted at select students, the whole team by extension suffered under a “persistent, abusive environment of harassment which affected every student athlete who witnessed such abuse.”

The letter continued to say Central High School Principal Fred George and Athletic Director Chad Whitworth took no action to resolve the issue, to the best of the legislators’ knowledge. Instead, athletes allege they were retaliated against for their parents’ complaints, including having their playing time reduced or being benched entirely.

Apodaca’s actions, the legislators said, were in violation of Wyoming’s Safe School Climate Act that prohibits harassment, intimidation or bullying. 

Ellis told Cowboy State Daily that she had been contacted by at least three different parents who voiced concern that the process for looking into complaints about the coach was not being followed.

She added the retaliatory action taken against select students prompted her to intervene.

“We try to be respectful of local decisions and local school boards,” Ellis said, “but as a legislator, I thought it was appropriate to ask the district to weigh in given the parents’ need to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation against their student athletes.”

Olsen, in a post on his Facebook page, said if the issue is not “properly addressed,” lawmakers may be prompted to take action to amend the Safe School Climate Act.

“The Wyoming Legislature is proud of its longstanding history against student harassment, intimidation, and bullying,” he wrote. “If there are gaps in our laws which fail to adequately protect our students, we need to make it a priority to address those gaps as soon as possible.”

Central High School Principal Fred George told Cowboy State Daily that the administration does not comment on any personnel issues. 

“Egregious” Bullying

Speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear that his son will be retaliated against, one father said his son was subject to “pretty egregious bullying” that went beyond what might be construed as productive feedback.

“(The coach) would embarrass or humiliate the kids for things that were unrelated to football and would do it in the locker room or on or off the field,” he said.

This included calling a player “dumb” or attacking an overconfident player by exposing his vulnerabilities in targeted attacks aimed at demeaning and embarrassing him in front of the other students.

Another father, who also asked to remain anonymous for the sake of his son’s position on the team, said he isn’t sure how many players were targeted though he personally knew of more than half a dozen. 

Both men said the verbal comments from the coach went far beyond what could reasonably be construed as constructive.

“He (Apodaca) exerted power and beat these kids down to the point that made them not sure how to feel about themselves as young men,” one father said.

It’s had a lasting impact that his son will feel for the rest of his life, he said, and his son is still visibly angry and rocked by the demeaning nature of the experience.

“It’s not just a lost or losing season,” he said. “My son missed out on an opportunity to have a positive mentor in a football coach, and he will always remember it for the wrong reasons.”

Several kids quit the team over the course of the season, he added, while others – including parents – were afraid to speak up.

Anonymous Surveys

Those parents and student athletes voiced their concerns about Apodaca and his coaching style in the end-of-season surveys that are regularly filled out and shared with the district.

Both of the fathers interviewed for this article said they had discussed the survey with their sons and other parents and players and all had agreed to be honest about their experiences.

At least one parent hired legal counsel to file a public records request with the school district on Dec. 8 asking for any documents containing one of five key phrases, including “Apodaca bullying, Cheyenne Central football bullying, Apodaca inappropriate, Apodaca intimidation and Apodaca parent complaint.” The request also asked for the results of the anonymous surveys. 

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one parent responsible for hiring legal counsel to initiate the request said it was done as a precaution to ensure that all information the public is entitled to review is made available.

“This school district has struggled with transparency in the past, particularly with personnel matters,” that parent said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily. “Due to the severity of bullying we’ve experienced from the football coach, we used every tool possible to ensure public oversight of our taxpayer funded program.”  

An initial response sent Jan. 5 from the district’s counsel, O’Kelley H. Pearson, rejected the request for the survey results, saying the survey revealed concerns with the Cheyenne Central football coaching staff that led to an employee evaluation.

It added that concerns regarding staff conduct were raised before the survey was conducted, resulting in an investigation into alleged violations of personnel policies. 

As a result, Pearson wrote, the survey results can be withheld under Wyoming’s Public Records Act because they deal with a personnel issue.

On the issue of documents sought using the key phrases, the district said its search of the terms identified revealed no documents containing any of the phrases.

However, L. Cooper Overstreet, legal counsel representing the public records request for the undisclosed client, said Monday that he’s already been in touch with the district’s counsel and believes they will soon reach an agreement regarding the request.

“Initially, there was some push back,” Overstreet said, “but we’re hopeful that we’ve made some progress since their response on Jan. 5.”

To this end, Overstreet cited the June 2019 Albany County District Court ruling in favor of several Wyoming media outlets who had requested public records related to the firing of former University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols.

Judge Tori Kricken granted the media’s request for documents related to Nichols’ dismissal.

In her ruling, Kricken cited exceptions to the public records request for public employees, who by virtue of their position are subject to increased scrutiny and notoriety, particularly for those who voluntarily accept positions of public prominence in which that person has willfully relinquished their right to certain privacies. 

District Response

Although the response to the public records request alluded to an investigation currently underway by the Laramie School District No. 1, it did not not explicitly identify Apodaca as the subject.

The district, likewise, refused to comment.

“This is a confidential personnel matter, and the District does not comment on confidential personnel issues,” Vicki Thompson, assistant superintendent of human resources, said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily, through Creighton Grove, marketing specialist for the district.

Several of the parents interviewed, however, said the players were called to speak to human resource personnel who came to the high school to inquire about their responses to their surveys. 

Apodaca, who was hired in 2018 after a 15-year career coaching in Colorado, is a Cheyenne Central alumnus. He did not return Cowboy State Daily’s email request for comment prior to publication. 

The Cheyenne Central Indians ended their 2021 season with a 2-8 record.

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Explainer: Who Are The Candidates Nominated For Wyoming Superintendent?

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming will have a new superintendent of public instruction by early next week, if not perhaps sooner.

Three candidates were selected Saturday by the central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party to interview with Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday. Gordon will then have five days to determine who is the best person to lead Wyoming’s K-12 public education system for the next year.

The central committee nominated Thomas Kelly, Brian Schroeder and Marti Halverson to finish out former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s term, which ends in January 2023.

Here is a closer look at the candidates:

Halverson is a former legislator who served five years in the Wyoming House of Representatives. She and her husband moved to Wyoming in 1996 after they retired from working in the medical device industry.

She has also served as Wyoming’s Republican national committeewoman and has been active in politics for decades.

In her cover letter, Halverson told the central committee that mask and vaccine mandates, school closings, obscene literature and “racist agendas” were the biggest assaults on Wyoming’s classrooms right now.

“A superior K-12 education does not require the latest in brick and mortar, or advanced teaching degrees or even state certifications,” Halverson wrote in her letter. “Rather, a first-class education requires the dedication and investment of teachers and mentors, whether they be paid educators, or local retired chemists, mathematicians and business professionals or…the parents.”

Schroeder is a longtime educator who has worked in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming. He has also worked as a family and youth counselor for nearly 20 years and spent nearly a decade in pastoral ministry.

He currently leads Veritas Academy, a classical Christian school in Cody, which has been open for nearly seven years.

“The local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society,” Schroeder wrote in his cover letter. “There is, therefore, no work on earth more important than what we do as teachers (outside of parenting, of course), which makes the top teacher job in the state all the more critical by way of providing the necessary leadership and direction to our schools.”

Kelly is a former public school teacher who serves as chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University.

He has lived in Sheridan since 2019, and his five youngest children attend Sheridan schools. He said he was considering a run for school board until Balow’s position opened up. He served on the Sheridan County Planning Commission for two years.

“Wyoming is at a crossroads in terms of maintaining both an excellent public educational system and remaining fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” he wrote in his cover letter. “Wyoming needs to focus on hiring effective and innovative educators rather than further bloating district bureaucracies and chasing the latest expensive technology for the classroom.”

Balow abruptly resigned almost two weeks ago after accepting a similar appointed position in Virginia. Wyoming Department of Education chief policy officer Kari Eakins is currently serving as interim superintendent.

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Two Educators, Former Legislator Named Finalists For Wyo Superintendent of Public Instruction

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Two educators and a former legislator have been nominated as candidates to fill the vacancy in the state superintendent of public instruction’s office left with the resignation of Jillian Balow.

The central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party on Saturday nominated Thomas Kelly, Brian Schroeder and Marti Halverson to finish out Balow’s term, which ends in January 2023.

The names of the three will be submitted to Gov. Mark Gordon, who will select Balow’s replacement after interviewing all three.

The three were among 12 candidates who applied for the job after Balow announced she was leaving Wyoming to take a similar position in Virginia.

Halverson, who served in Wyoming’s House from 2013-2018, said her top duty as superintendent would be to track money being spent on education in the state.

“My role as superintendent would be to know where the money’s going and also where it’s coming from,” she said. “I think we want to know, we want some accountability for the money that we’ve spent.”

Kelly, chair of the Department of Political and Military Science at American Military University, told central committee members he is seeking the superintendent’s job to help prevent public schools from being used to indoctrinate children liberal ideologies.

“I want somebody in this position who can take this on, understand exactly that we are facing the greatest assault globally I’ve ever seen on liberty,” he said. “I am here to do what I can to make sure that people are awake to what’s happening and how the kids are being used in public schools to be indoctrinated to do things like march in lockstep, wear their masks.”

All three candidates, when questioned about mandates requiring the use of face masks in classrooms, said such health decisions need to be left in the hands of local school districts and parents.

“I think that decision needs to stay local, with the communities and their schools,” said Schroeder, head of Cody’s Veritas Academy, a private Christian school. “The mask and vaccine mandate and how restrictive that ought to be, that ought to be sorted out at the school board level subject to the parents and the community.”

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Former Legislator Goodenough Seeks Superintendent Job

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A former state legislator who joined Wyoming’s Republican Party several years ago has signed up to seek the state’s open superintendent of public instruction job.

Keith Goodenough, a former Democrat who served in Wyoming’s House from 1989 to 1992 and in the Senate from 1995 to 2004, said he is trying to make a point with his application for the job left open with the resignation of Jillian Balow.

“My main interest is in making the point of what a true conservative is,” he said. “Because most of the people involved with the leadership of the GOP are not actually conservatives, as that term has been politically defined for 100 years.”

The central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party is to meet Saturday to select three finalists to interview for the job left vacant when Balow resigned to take a similar position in Virginia.

Goodenough and 11 others filed applications for the job prior to Saturday’s meeting. Other nominees may submit their names for consideration during the meeting.

Gov. Mark Gordon will select one of the finalists to take over the superintendent’s job.

Goodenough said he wants a chance to tell the central committee that being a conservative means supporting the Constitution and not supporting expressions of violence against political opponents.

“If you think about the bedrock of what conservatives are, they are historically supportive of the Constitution, they do not support violence in government, they do not support attacking the Capitol and they do not support bullying appointed and elected officials,” he said. “They have veered off-course on that.”

Goodenough said the main plank in his campaign for the position is to give all control over schools to local school districts.

“While obeying court decisions, of course, and obeying state law,” he said. “But there are things that can be done to chip away at the centralized system.” 

Goodenough was a Democrat while serving in the Legislature, but he noted several other legislators have changed affiliation over the years, such as former Senate President Eli Bebout.

Bebout started his years in the Legislature as a Democrat and changed parties.

Goodenough described himself as a “Cheney Republican.”

“That’s a member of the GOP who is willing to tell the truth about Donald Trump and the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021,” he said.

Goodenough said he is not sure how his message will be received by the central committee.

“They are not as friendly as they used to be,” he said. “But I figure I’ll make my point and be done with it. It needs to be said.”

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12 Candidates Apply For Superintendent Of Schools; Wyoming GOP To Narrow To 3

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

At least a dozen candidates, including several former legislators, are seeking to replace former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who abruptly resigned from her elected position last week.

The Wyoming Republican Party on Saturday will narrow that field down to just three candidates, who will then be interviewed by Gov. Mark Gordon, who will choose Balow’s replacement.

Candidates who filed expressions of interest prior to Saturday’s meeting were: Michelle Aldrich, Megan Degenfelder, Reagan Kaufman, Angela Raber, Thomas Kelly, Jayme Lien, David Northrup, Joseph Heywood, Joshua Valk, Marti Halverson, Brian Schroeder, Sr. and  Keith Goodenough. However, candidates who did not file in advance of the meeting could put their names into consideration during Saturday’s meeting.

The three selected finalists will be interviewed by Gordon on Tuesday. Gordon will then have five days to appoint a new superintendent. That person will serve for the remainder of Balow’s term, which will end in January 2023. Balow was first elected to the position in 2014 and then re-elected in 2018.

The candidates come from a variety of backgrounds, such as education, politics and the oil and gas industry.

Northrup is a former legislator who has served on the board of trustees for Park County School District 1.

“As I have led education policy work at the local and state levels, I am well-positioned to put policy into practice,” he wrote in his cover letter.

Halverson is also a former legislator and businesswoman.

Goodenough, is a former legislator, Casper city councilman and a former member of the Democratic party who became a Republican several years ago.

Aldrich is a current Cheyenne city councilwoman who has been an educator in Wyoming for 30 years. She serves as the state director of career and technical education at the Wyoming Department of Education, a position she was appointed to in 2019.

“I have the ability to lead the Wyoming Department of Education during this challenging time while maintaining momentum,” Aldrich wrote in her cover letter.

Heywood is the executive director of the Wyoming Virtual Academy.

Degenfelder is a former WDE chief policy officer (currently the position held by Kari Eakins, interim superintendent), but currently works as a government and regulatory affairs manager with an oil and gas company.

“As our resources and their development continue to be threatened by outside forces, it is more important than ever to have leadership that protects our way of life and the resources we produce that benefit the rest of the word,” she wrote in her cover letter.

Schroeder is a longtime educator who has worked in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming.

Kelly is a former public school teacher who served as chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University.

“Wyoming is at a crossroads in terms of maintaining both an excellent public educational system and remaining fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” he wrote in his cover letter. “Wyoming needs to focus on hiring effective and innovative educators rather than further bloating district bureaucracies and chasing the latest expensive technology for the classroom.”

Kaufman teaches at Cheyenne’s South High School and was the 2018 teacher of the year for the Laramie County School District No. 1. If appointed to the position, she intends to call for a “significant” revision of the Wyoming social studies standards.

Valk is an administrator at the University of Wyoming in Casper.

Raber is an instructor at Sheridan Community College.

Balow announced last week that she would be leaving Wyoming to take a similar position with the state of Virginia, having accepted an offer from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

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Wyoming’s Graduation Rate Slightly Increased In 2021

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming saw a slight uptick in its high school graduation rate for 2021, marking the eighth consecutive year of graduation rate increases.

The state’s graduation rate increased to 82.4% in the 2020-2021 school year, a 0.1% increase over the prior school year, when it was 82.3%. The number reflects the fact that 5,913 students graduated high school during the year, while 1,261 students left school without graduating.

“I think we all know that the pandemic thrust some unique challenges on students in schools the last two years,” Kari Eakins, interim director for the Wyoming Department of Education, said during a news conference Wednesday. “This continued improvement shows just how highly we value education in this state. High school graduation is one of the most important achievements in a student’s life.”

Wyoming’s graduation rate remains below the national the national average of 86%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The national average number is for the 2018-2019 school year, as it takes longer for national data to be compiled, Eakins noted.

The lowest graduation rates in the state were found among homeless students at 61.3%, students learning the English language, 61.3%, and American Indian students, 52.9%.

Eakins blamed the pandemic for being at least partially responsible for Wyoming schools failing to address dropout rates among these groups.

“We know that a lot of students had homes that didn’t have solid broadband connections or the atmosphere that they needed to conduct their schoolwork in a good manner,” she said. “Obviously if you’re a homeless student, I would imagine that struggle is even greater. For English language learners and a lot of other students that needed special services, it was more difficult to deliver those during the pandemic.”

The graduation rates for homeless and Native American students actually dropped over the last year.

However, 17 Wyoming school districts posted graduation rates of 90% or above. Sheridan County School District No. 3 in Clearmont and Washakie County School District No. 2 in Ten Sleep both had 100% graduation rates last year.

Eakins pointed to Converse County School District 2 in Glenrock as a prime example of one district that has significantly increased its graduation rate in recent years. The district had a graduation rate of 94% for the most recent school year, an increase of 12% in just a few years.

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Cheyenne School District To Discontinue Mask Mandate Despite Rising COVID Cases

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The largest school district in Wyoming will rescind its mask mandate for students and staff later this month despite rising active COVID cases across the state and nation.

The Laramie County School District No. 1 board of trustees on Monday night voted to discontinue the mandate on Jan. 21. The action was narrowly approved, with trustees Brittany Ashby, Christy Klaassen, Alicia Smith and Tim Bolin voting to approve the change to the district’s coronavirus response plan and Marguerite Herman, Rose Ann Million Rinne and Rick Wiederspahn voting against it.

“It’s time we lift the September addendum to the Smart Start plan,” attorney and former congressional candidate Darin Smith told the trustees. “It’s now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can keep our schools open, have low to no risk for our kids and staff, all without the mask mandate. The rest of the state has already proven it.”

Once the mandate ends, students and staff will be encouraged, but not required, to wear a mask while in school.

As of Tuesday, 35 active COVID cases had been identified among LCSD1 students and staff, according to the district’s COVID dashboard.

Darin Smith, who is married to trustee Alicia Smith, emailed LCSD1 community members over the weekend to encourage them to email trustees — identifying those believed to be in support of or opposed to the mask mandate — and attend the meeting to voice their thoughts about the mandate.

Smith’s email also identified the board members who were running for re-election this year, although he mistakenly identified Herman as seeking re-election. Herman has announced she will retire from the board this year.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several parents criticized the trustees for implementing the mask mandate and adopting quarantine rules for students to follow after exposure to COVID.

The public comment portion of the meeting lasted more than an hour on Monday night. Comments were similar to those heard when the mask mandate was adopted last fall, with some referring to school officials as “criminals” and “child abusers.”

The school district implemented the mandate at the start of the fall semester when the Delta variant of the coronavirus was of concern. Now, the omicron variant, which is less mild, is the dominant strain in state. The Cheyenne hospital was also at capacity due to an increase in COVID patients at the time.

As of Monday, Laramie County had 555 active COVID cases, the second-highest in the state, behind Teton County with 618, which is also the most vaccinated county in Wyoming.

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Rise In Internet Crimes Against Children In Wyoming Prompts Educational Effort

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Internet crimes against children are on the rise in Wyoming and are focusing on increasingly younger victims, according to authorities.

The increase marks an alarming trend toward the normalization of sexually exploitative behaviors among teens and children that make them more vulnerable to predators, experts said.

Chris McDonald, special agent and head of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit for Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, said that the state had another banner year with regard to the numerous cyber tips that he and his team received about potential exploitation of children online.

In 2021, ITAC received more than 600 tips, leading to 33 arrests, compared to 262 tips in 2019 and 531 in 2020. The tips come from social media and internet providers as well as the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other reporting agencies. 

Of the 33 arrests in 2021, many were for producing or sharing child pornography involving 23 live victims who were rescued through law enforcement efforts. Police have also made arrests in cases of adults traveling to have sex with children, as well as cases involving “sextortion” and blackmail.

Staying ahead of the predators

As a father himself and someone who typically would avoid social media, McDonald said that adult oversight is key to keeping children safe. He and his team are seeing an increase in predatory activity on platforms such as KIK, Snapchat and TikTok, as well as in online and multi-player games.

“Everything is happening at the speed of the internet,” he said. “Predators are able to hide themselves. It’s like an arms race any time there is new platform or app.”

While officers can’t control the predators, they can do everything in their power to educate teens about the potential threats and the ramifications of their internet activity and behavior.

Terri Markham sees risky online behavior every day in her role as co-founder and executive director of Uprising Wyoming, a Sheridan-based nonprofit focused on education and raising awareness about human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. 

In the roughly three years since she founded the nonprofit, Markham has traversed the state working with law enforcement, first responders and other professionals in the field to raise awareness about the issue and working with teens to teach them to recognize and protect themselves against online predation.

What she’s found in working with teens in the middle and high school levels has alarmed her, both in the number of times teens have been approached by potential predators online as well as their blasé attitude toward sharing nude photos of themselves or their peers.

Markham shared the results of anonymous surveys from workshops with youths age 12 and up from around the state in which 45% reported being approached by a stranger online in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.

In that same group, 15% said they had social media accounts that their parents didn’t know about while 13% said they had sent or received nude photos or videos online.

An additional 8% reported drug or alcohol abuse in their home, which is another vulnerability, Markham noted. 

Even more shocking to her was the three disclosures from a group of 12- to 13-years-olds she spoke with recently who reported active cases of sextortion in which someone was threatening to release a nude photo or video of them against their wishes. 

Markham said her group learned that children in that age group needed to be equipped with youth critical thinking skills to help them identify when they are in a potentially exploitative situation.  

“What we discovered is that we were really a little too late in talking about this topic with this age group,” she said. “It often leads to just giving them the language to describe experiences that had already happened or were happening to them.”

Worse yet, Markham said, is that it’s becoming very commonplace to see younger children, as young as 9 or 10, also sharing nude photos across a variety of social media platforms and apps.

As a result of what Markham and her team were finding, they’ve decided to continue focusing these workshops with youth across the state in order to help mitigate these dangerous behaviors that make them particularly vulnerable to predators. 

“It’s becoming so normalized that it’s getting easier for predators to exploit these children,” she said. “They are growing up with this and thinking it’s normal.”

Along with offering training for children, educators, law enforcement and other professionals, Uprising also conducts training sessions for parents and care givers to make them aware of the problem while giving them tools to help keep their children safe. 

“We’re all about risk reduction,” she said. “Both immediate and long term. We want to let kids know that these images can come back to haunt them and how important it is to report it instead of just re-sharing or not staying anything. That’s where it starts. Risky behavior leads to other risky behavior when a stranger comes around.”

Like Markham, McDonald focuses a lot of his time doing in-class presentations throughout the state.

“We can’t get rid of it all,” he said, “so we have to figure out how to help the kiddos protect themselves online.”

For more information about this issue and opportunities for education and training, contact Markham at Uprising Wyoming. Additional resources include Thorn.org and Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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Worland Teacher Lines Up Partnership Between U.S. Space Force & 80 Students

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A group of fourth grade students in Worland has gotten a glimpse of the future.

This fall, West Side Elementary School fourth graders got the chance to collaborate with Space Force, a new division of the United States Armed Forces, to conduct a science experiment involving engineering and a tower of index cards.

Ashley Weaver, the teacher who got the collaboration moving with a letter of application to Space Force, told Cowboy State Daily she heard about the opportunity from her husband, Dane, a teacher in nearby Ten Sleep.

Dane was named Wyoming’s “Teacher of the Year” for 2020 and through that experience, he learned about the Space Force’s mission to reach out to future scientists and space explorers.

“It was (Space Force’s) second birthday and the Space Force wanted to celebrate by accepting applications to collaborate with them from all over the nation,” Ashley Weaver said. “And I was able to be chosen.”

Weaver said her contact with Space Force began with Maj. Jonathan Hogan, based in Los Angeles, California. In October, Hogan worked with students virtually to perform an experiment called “The Tower of Power,” in which the students created a structure using just index cards.

“They were only allowed 50 index cards, and they had to build the tallest tower that would actually hold like a little small stuffed animal for 10 seconds,” Weaver said. “And to do that, they had to use the engineering process to help them decide, ‘What do I want it to look like? What’s going to be the strongest structure?’”

After the experiment, Weaver said all of the 80-plus students were able to hold a Zoom meeting with Hogan to discuss their findings.

“We actually took all of our fourth graders, and we set up the camera on our (smart) board, and they just had a great time talking to him and discussing things that went well, or that didn’t go well the day before, when we did our experiments,” she said.

“Maj. Hogan talked about Space Force and what jobs there were for (students) in the future,” added Bruce Miller, the principal at West Side School.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know what it was when I first heard about it,” Weaver said of the new branch of the U.S. Air Force. “And so he explained to us what the Space Force is, and how he got into it, and how engineering and the STEM process will help you get into any of these branches of job opportunities eventually.”

Principal Miller said the school is trying to stress a STEM-based curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and this opportunity to collaborate with Space Force fits right into those goals.

Miller noted that the school has recently been able to access federal funds to purchase STEM-related equipment.

“We purchased an inflatable planetarium, where you go inside of it and see the stars,” he said. “And we purchased a bunch of science tools — a lot of microscopes, and some of those Oculus glasses, a virtual reality thing. And we’ve done an outdoor classroom with a community garden — our fourth graders gave over 100 families food out of this garden.”

Miller said this collaboration is a rare opportunity to expose students from this primarily agriculture-based community to career paths they might not otherwise know about.

“We’re just trying to get our kids immersed into that, their future, probably,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what our kids will grow up and have to know how to do, but if we don’t give them their first taste of it, I think they’re going to be behind a lot of the country. So I think that’s kind of why we’re pushing it, to just get them used to using technology.”

“This was a wonderful opportunity for the kids because of the fact that it is a rural school, and mostly agriculture,” Weaver added. “Who knows when these students would ever actually have the chance to do this again in their lives? I had to take advantage of it for the kids.” 

“I think the grit and determination of Wyoming folks is in our kids as well,” said Miller. “I think it will lead to great things in our country, to be honest with you.”

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No Violence Seen At Wyoming Schools After Threats Circulate Online

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

All was quiet on Friday across Wyoming’s school districts after many increased security measures due to threats of violence that circulated nationally across the social media app TikTok.

A message spread across TikTok throughout the week claiming numerous school shootings would occur on Friday prompted school officials across the state to take extra precautions, such as bringing in police officers to patrol areas around schools.

Multiple school districts in Wyoming — Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, Natrona County School District No. 1 in Casper, Uinta County School District No. 4 in Mountain View Park County School District No. 1 in Powell and Park County School District No. 6 in Cody — responded to the threat by adding security measures on Friday.

LCSD1 spokeswoman Mary Quast told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that it was a “pretty routine” school day, despite the concern.

“We did see a decrease in attendance today, which is likely due to it being the Friday prior to a long break and other variables like family travel and nice weather,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Also, some of this decrease could have been the result of the threat that was posed through social media.”

Casper Police School Resource Sgt. Scott Jones made it clear Thursday that anyone taking part in making threats toward a school could face criminal charges.

“We would like to remind all individuals, regardless of age, that a violent threat toward a school is illegal,” said Casper Police Department School Resource Sergeant Scott Jones. “The Casper Police Department will vigorously investigate any claim of violence and hold the person responsible for the threat accountable. In Wyoming, that means a felony arrest for making a terroristic threat. We find this and similar trends highly disturbing and encourage all parents and guardians to have a conversation with their children about the real life consequences as result of these trends.”

According to CNN, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Friday morning it had no evidence to suggest the claims are credible but encouraged the public to “remain alert.”

On Friday afternoon, TikTok said it had begun removing the threats from its platform as misinformation.

“We’ve exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing. What we find are videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe,” the company said in a tweet. “Local authorities, the FBI, and DHS have confirmed there’s no credible threat, so we’re working to remove alarmist warnings that violate our misinformation policy. If we did find promotion of violence on our platform, we’d remove and report it to law enforcement.”

Wyoming was not the only state taking the threats seriously. School districts across the nation, from Utah to Texas, had taken some sort of measures to prevent any violence occurring on Friday, ranging from added security to even school closures, CNN reported.

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Wyoming Schools Add Extra Security Due To Threats Of Violence On TikTok

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Multiple school districts across Wyoming have put extra security measures in place for Friday in response to a threat of violence that has been circulating nationally on the popular social media app TikTok.

A message spread across TikTok throughout the week claiming numerous school shootings will occur on Friday, prompting school officials across the state to take extra precautions.

At least four school districts in Wyoming — Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, Natrona County School District No. 1 in Casper, Uinta County School District No. 4 in Mountain View and Park County School District No. 1 in Powell — have responded to the threat while telling parents and community members that no school officials have received reports of any credible threats.

“This situation serves as a good example of why it is important to avoid sharing posts online that refer to school safety threats,” PCSD1 officials said Thursday. “Even if they are not credible threats, they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for our students, families, and staff. We ask our families to monitor their children’s social media activity and speak with them about proper behavior online.”

Officials in the other districts shared similar messages with constituents, letting parents know an increased police presence will be seen in schools on Friday.

Casper Police School Resource Sgt. Scott Jones made it clear that anyone taking part in making threats toward a school could face criminal charges.

“We would like to remind all individuals, regardless of age, that a violent threat toward a school is illegal,” said Casper Police Department School Resource Sergeant Scott Jones. “The Casper Police Department will vigorously investigate any claim of violence and hold the person responsible for the threat accountable. In Wyoming, that means a felony arrest for making a terroristic threat. We find this and similar trends highly disturbing and encourage all parents and guardians to have a conversation with their children about the real life consequences as result of these trends.”

Wyoming’s schools were not the only ones planning for extra precautions on Friday, as schools districts across the nation are taking the potential threat of violence seriously and addressing parents’ concerns, according to other news reports.

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Wyoming Public Schools Saw Increase Of 54 Students This Fall

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s public education system saw an overall enrollment increase of 54 students this fall, according to data released by the Wyoming Department of Education.

As of fall 2021, the state had 91,992 students enrolled across its 48 school districts, a slight increase from the 91,938 enrolled in public schools last fall.

WDE numbers do not include students who are home-schooled or are enrolled in private school.

The data showed a significant decline in enrollment for virtual classes at the state’s two largest school districts — Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne and Natrona County School District No. 1 in Casper — which indicates students returned to their local school districts this fall to resume in-person instruction.

There also was a 5% to 10% drop in enrollment at three of the school districts on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Cheyenne schools saw an increase in enrollment of nearly 200 students, keeping Laramie County School District No. 1 the largest in the state with a little more than 14,000 students.

The smallest school district in Wyoming was Park County School District No. 16 in Meeteetse, with 89 students, an increase of three from last fall.

The highest number of students enrolled in the last decade was in fall 2015, when more than 94,000 students enrolled in public schools.

Wyoming has not had more than 100,000 students enrolled in its public schools since the 1990s, according the WDE historical data.

The lowest number of enrolled students in the last 20 years was in fall 2005, 83,705 students were enrolled in the state’s public schools.

The Wyoming Department of Education did not immediately return a request for comment on the numbers.

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