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Wyoming education

USDA Repeats Demand For Biden Administration Gender Ideology Policies

in News/Education
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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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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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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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Democrat Superintendent Candidate Says He Wouldn’t Politicize Top Education Job

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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily

Sergio Maldonado Sr. is a man who has immersed himself in books, vessels of knowledge that have taught him the value of listening and learning. 

One particular book he read by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the eighth grade, he said, changed his whole outlook on life.

His passion for the written word remains just as strong today.

“We have to come back to where society appreciates good books,” the Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction told Cowboy State Daily. “It pushes you into the place, the time, the emotion.”

If elected Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, Maldonado said he will try to instill that same passion in Wyoming’s students to improve overall literacy.

“All students must be literate,” said Maldonado, who is to speak at the St. Stephen’s Indian School commencement on Sunday. “If we care to, we will become a read society, a society of spoken word.”

Maldonado, a man of Hispanic and Native American heritage, said he is running for office with the hope of bringing equality to the classroom, no matter the gender, age, race, class or sexual orientation of students.

“Our education systems must promote and cultivate the acceptance of diversity,” he said. “No one can claim pure ethnicity. Each one of us is unique.”

First Democrat

Maldonado is the first Democrat to register as a candidate for the office now held by Republican Brian Schroeder.

If Maldonado wins the Democratic primary election on Aug. 16, he will face the winner of the Republican primary in the general election. Three Republicans have so far registered as candidates for the post: Schroeder, Tom Kelly and Megan Degenfelder.

The deadline to register as a candidate for office in Wyoming is May 27.

Maldonado said he plans to tour the state during his campaign and listen to the educators, superintendents and members of the community as they describe the challenges faced in classrooms today. 

“I assure you I will listen to people,” he said. “This is what this job is about.”

He also vowed to leave decisions about education in local hands.

“I will not politicize education,” he said. “These decisions are made by you and your spouse. We must have local control, local input. That’s how it must work.”

Lifelong Experience

Maldonado said his lifelong experience in education and strong familiarity with Wyoming schools make him the right candidate for the superintendent job.

Maldonado has taught at Central Wyoming College and other colleges, teaching American Indian studies and other Native American-related topics. 

In 2015, he was chosen by former Gov. Matt Mead as Wyoming’s liaison with the Northern Arapaho Tribe, of which Maldonado is a member. In this role, Maldonado met with the governor two to three times a month and attended every day of the 2016 and 2017 state legislative sessions. 

Maldonado also was appointed by former President H.W. Bush to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education in 1989, where he served a three-year term, an experience he described as humbling and transformative for his understanding of education.

In 2016, Maldonado ran against Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander, in House District 33 (R-Lander) and lost by a small margin of votes. In 2014 and 2018, he ran unsuccessfully in Senate District 25 against Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander).

Maldonado resigned from his liaison role in 2017 when the state cut his salary in half, opting to return to academia.

Listening

He currently lives on the Wind River Reservation and is working on earning a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Wyoming. He already holds degrees from Brigham Young University and Arizona State University.

In the past, Maldonado has taught at public and charter schools and has also served in administrative roles. He said it was his experience helping hire new teachers that made him particularly adept at listening.

“When they pose a question, I listen with intent,” he said. 

Most recently, he trained employees at the Wind River Casino and he is now is a substitute teacher.

“As an educator, I have to remember I’m teaching service into life,” he said.

If elected, Maldonado said he plans to focus on early childhood development, low-income food assistance, parental accountability, preparing students for post-secondary education, vocational schooling and school performance assessments.

However, he does not want to put too much emphasis on testing scores.

“These tests are biased,” he said.

Low Test Scores

If elected, he said one of his biggest tasks will be determining why Wyoming, a state with some of the highest per student school spending in the nation, is on the lower end nationally for test scores. 

He also wants to focus on poverty and how it affects classroom performance.

To address that issue, Maldonado said he wants to encourage communication between high- and low-performing school districts to find common areas of success.

Maldonado said he believes a community shapes its schools and students.

He noted that when students from the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to some of the lowest performing schools in the state, commuted to attend schools off the reservation, many of the students experienced success.

Maldonado said he supports the rights of transgender students but does not believe critical race theory should be taught at the K-12 level. 

As far as higher education, he believes the University of Wyoming, like the rest of Wyoming’s public schools, needs to be adequately funded.

“Is there any wonder why so many of UW’s grads leave the state and go elsewhere?” he said. “What are we not doing?”

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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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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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Photo by Christian Ender/Getty Images
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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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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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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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Green Rivers’ Brittney Montgomery Named Wyoming’s 2022 Teacher Of The Year

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By staff reports, Cowboy State Daily

Brittney Montgomery, a first-grade teacher at Sweetwater County School District #2’s Harrison Elementary School in Green River, was named Wyoming’s 2022 Teacher of the Year during Wednesday’s Wyoming Education Summit.

Montgomery is an advocate for her students and believes in every student’s ability to grow academically and socially, setting students up for success. Montgomery uses positive reinforcement, motivates, and encourages students to become lifelong learners. She teaches students to take ownership of their learning and to be advocates for themselves and their peers.

“I am so excited to work with Brittney as Wyoming’s Teacher of the Year,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “Her skill and passion in the classroom and as a teacher leader will represent Wyoming well. Brittany’s belief in teaching the entire child is evident –  she has a positive impact on the students she teaches. As Teacher of the Year, her influence and impact will extend to colleagues and others across the state and nation.” 

Every student Montgomery encounters is treated as if they were her own child. When school shut down, Montgomery began reading stories online to help children keep a sense of normalcy. This was quickly picked up by a local news source and “Storytime with Mrs. Montgomery” was shared with thousands of children across the country.

“One of the things when I think about Brittney as an educator is her ability to connect with kids and build relationships –  it just puts her over the top,” said Steven Lake, Principal of Harrison Elementary School, “The little things set her apart. During the pandemic, Brittney’s story time turned into something that ended up impacting students across the county. She has such positive energy that is infectious for staff and for students.” 

Montgomery said she has a desire to help those pursuing a career in education. She works with new educators as a mentor-teacher and spends time helping college students pursuing their degree in education. Montgomery is an active member of her school leadership committee and served as secretary for the Green River Education Association.

“I am honored to have been chosen as the 2022 Wyoming Teacher of the Year,” Montgomery said. “We are blessed in Wyoming with some of the best educators in the nation and I am proud to have been nominated beside them. Congratulations to all of the 2022 District Teachers of the Year. I look forward to representing – and being an ambassador – of education in our incredible state.”

The Wyoming Teacher of the Year comes with the significant responsibility of representing the teaching profession in Wyoming. The Wyoming Teacher of the Year acts as liaison among the teaching community, Wyoming Legislature, Wyoming Department of Education, districts and communities. In addition, the Teacher of the Year is an education ambassador to businesses, parents, service organizations, and media, as well as an education leader involved in teacher forums and education reform.

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Opinion: The Legislature, Education, And Closing the Coal Gap

in News/Education
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By Rep. Albert Sommers, Rep. Jerry Paxton, Rep. Steve Harshman, Rep. Landon Brown, guest column

Several news articles have appeared recently about the Wyoming Legislature’s failure this past session to solve the K12 education funding shortfall. Due to the lack of legislative action, Governor Gordon is developing a committee to review K12 education, and to develop a “customer based” approach.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s April 30 op-ed in the Casper Star-Tribune suggests a committee should develop a five-year plan for education funding. Superintendent Balow believes that the K12 “basket of goods” should be updated, and that Wyoming needs “a newer version of our K12 system that teaches for a 21st Century economy and is fiscally sustainable.”

Is our educational system not competitive with other states? Is it not adequately educating Wyoming’s children Based upon a compilation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, the nation’s report card, in 2019 Wyoming ranked 4th, behind only Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.

In 2017, the Legislature hired Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) to review and compare Wyoming’s educational program (“basket of goods”) and its standards with those of other states. According to APA, “Wyoming’s Education Program is well aligned in most content areas with regional and high performing comparison states.”

Some believe that if we reduce our “basket of goods” we can reduce expenditures on education, without repercussions from the courts.

Our “basket of goods” consists of the following content areas: Reading/language arts; Social studies; Mathematics, Science; Fine arts and performing arts; Physical education; Health and safety; Humanities; Career/Vocational education, Foreign cultures and languages, Government and civics (including state and federal constitutions); and Computer science.

Which of these educational opportunities should we eliminate for Wyoming’s children, and would it save the state any money?

Wyoming’s K-12 Education School Foundation Program (SFP) is facing a $250 million annual structural deficit, and the School Capital Construction Account (SCCA) faces a $50 million annual shortfall.

Wyoming is like other states; we fund our schools with property taxes. The difference in Wyoming is that minerals pay half of our property taxes. Specifically, coal production has declined in the last ten years from 450 million tons per year to just over 200 million tons, which is a loss of nearly $400 million in state revenues.

To close the “coal gap,” the State must create new revenues (taxes), redirect current funding streams, or reduce spending. The common-sense approach would be a combination of these.

The Wyoming Constitution requires the Legislature to fund an equitable education “adequate to the proper instruction of all youth in the state.”

Due to failed negotiations on the last day of the session, Wyoming’s schools will require a $331 million transfer from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), the state’s “rainy day” fund, to maintain operations.

To close the K12 structural shortfall, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed House Bill 173 by a 41-19 vote. HB173 leveraged spending reductions, revenue flows that are headed to savings, federal stimulus funding and a half-percent sales tax for education, triggered only if state reserves were to fall below a critical level. House Bill 173 would have solved about 85% of the K12 SFP funding gap.

Wyoming should continue to look for efficiencies in funding K12 education. It is imperative that Wyoming continue to examine its K12 educational program to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.

However, Wyoming has lost 250 million tons of coal production per year and the taxes generated from it. Wyoming needs a comprehensive solution to education funding that includes reduced spending, redirecting existing revenue flows, and new revenues.

Sincerely,

Albert Sommers
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #20

Jerry Paxton
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #47

Steve Harshman
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #37

Landon Brown
Wyoming House of Representatives
House District #9

Wyo Education: Value Of Four-Day Week Depends On School, Balow Says

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – those are the times that families expect their kids to be in school. The times that teachers expect to be in front of their classrooms.

But the “traditional” view of school days and times is changing – even in Wyoming. 

Right now, according to the Wyoming Department of Education, 26 school districts in the state have moved to a four-day school week to meet the changing needs of students and staff.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said the benefits of a four-day week vary from school district to school district.

“For students, it gives them sometimes longer class periods during the four-day week where they can work more with teachers and interact with their peers,” she said, adding that Fridays are often utilized for intervention or enrichment activities for students. 

“We see this a lot in our smaller school districts,” she said, pointing to her own experience as a teacher in the tiny town of Hulett in northeast Wyoming.

“I can tell you that there are lots of Fridays that because of sports, there may be 50% to 60% of the school gone for the better part of the day – so a four day school week also allows for a school district to make some some decisions about making sure kids are in school for those four days, and then activities are on Friday,” she said.

Balow noted the shift can sometimes be based on financial issues.

“Financial gains or losses really need to be analyzed and realized at the local level,” she said. “In some cases, it might be a financial gain to have a four-day week. And in some cases, it might cost a little bit more, just depending on how it how it is worked.”

But she added that no matter the school’s decision, the one thing that must remain unchanged is the number of hours the students are in the classroom.

“Whether they do it within four days or five days, the student contact hours are the very same,” she said. “And they have to assure the state Legislature and my department and the State Board of Education that they are meeting those those contact hours for students.”

Jimmy Phelps is the superintendent for Washakie County School District No. 2 in Ten Sleep. Currently, the school operates on a schedule of four full days of classes with an alternating early release schedule on Fridays.

This spring, the school board was contemplating making a move to a four-day school week. But ultimately, he said, there wasn’t enough support for the measure to pass.

“I set up a task force that had 16 members,” he explained. “It included staff members, parents, stakeholders, and we looked at various aspects of it. We talked to members of other districts, and then we put out a survey to our stakeholders, and we had a very good response number from those.”

Responses to the survey in support of the measure included the idea that a four-day week promotes better mental and emotional health for students; opposition to the proposal stemmed in part from the fact the change would force parents to rework their schedules. In addition, some respondents saw no problem with the current schedule. 

Additionally, respondents noted that the school has more pressing issues to consider right now than a change to the weekly schedule.

In the end, Phelps said, there wasn’t enough support for the board to approve the change.

“There were more that had a definite yes, than definitely no, but there still wasn’t more than 50%,” he said. “So this task force felt like there wasn’t enough community support to recommend to the board a four-day week, for next year.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Niobrara County. George Mirich, the superintendent for the school district there, said the district moved to a four-day school week in 2019 for a number of reasons.

“One, we needed more time for professional development,” he explained. “And we needed to curtail our time out of classroom activities – between all of our activities, the low number of students and the high number of teachers involved in these activities as far as sponsors and coaches and such, we were missing school multiple times in the same week.”

Mirich said about 300 students attend school in the district, and on any given day, 30 students could be missing class to take part in any number of activities.

“And Fridays, a lot of times, we’d be missing half our kids and most of our teachers,” he adds.

So it’s worked out well for the schools in Lusk, according to Mirich.

But for Ten Sleep, the issue is now moot.

At a meeting that was held March 8, Phelps said the school board for Washakie County School District No. 2 closed down the discussion about moving to a four day week.

“It doesn’t mean it may not ever come up again, but there was nothing in the motion that the board approved about considering this in the future,” he said.

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