Classical Academy

The Jackson Hole Classical Academy K-12 complex is designed to cluster development near existing agricultural buildings.

A bill filed Friday proposes that Wyoming lawmakers strip counties’ zoning authority over private schools. The proposed legislation comes amid a heated debate pitting private school parents against rural neighbors over a plan to build a new school for the Jackson Hole Classical Academy in South Park.

The proposal would rewrite state law to prohibit counties from zoning that restricts “the location, use or occupancy of a private school,” if the school is sited on a property of 35 acres or more serving 50 students or more. It would go into effect July 1, 2019.

No Teton County lawmakers are listed as sponsors of the bill.

The sponsors are Sens. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont; Hank Coe, R-Park; Wyatt Agar, R-Hot Springs; Brian Boner, R-Converse/Platte; Ogden Driskill, R-Crook/Weston/E.Campbell; and Cheri Steinmetz, R-Niobrara/Weston; and Reps. Aaron Clausen, R-Converse; Michael Greear, R-Washakie/Bighorn; Timothy Hallinan, R-Campbell; Tyler Lindholm, R-Crook; David Miller, R-Fremont; and Tim Salazar, R-Fremont.

During the first week the Legislature meets, the Classical Academy is inviting legislators to a “Jackson Hole Classical Academy Legislative Dinner” in Cheyenne. Hosts are listed as former Teton County Rep. Clarene Law, Steve and Polly Friess, who run the school, and two state senators sponsoring the bill, Bebout and Coe.

When asked about the goal of the dinner, Academy spokesperson Kristin Walker didn’t mention the bill.

She said in a statement that students from the academy will be traveling to Cheyenne to perform for state legislators, “as many students from across Wyoming often do during session. Supporters of the school are hosting a dinner the night before where students will also sing and share their experience attending the school. Students and representatives from other private and faith-based schools have also been invited. The dinner is an opportunity to facilitate a discussion with legislators about the important role schools like Jackson Hole Classical Academy play in meeting our education needs statewide.”

Such receptions are common during the legislative session. Lawmakers can spend nearly all their meals with interest groups, from bankers to realtors to mental health professionals to the AARP.

At a meeting with Teton County’s delegation to Cheyenne on Thursday, County Commissioner Greg Epstein worried over bills threatening local control, especially in Teton County.

Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, named three examples he’s aware of in the upcoming legislative session: efforts to kill local government control over imposing affordable housing exactions, regulating wildlife-friendly fencing and removing regulatory power over private schools.

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, said he was troubled by an “end-run around local legislators.”

“Part of my campaign was to make sure we have more control over how we do things in Teton County,” Yin said.

Sen.-elect Mike Gierau, D-Teton, met with academy representatives and said he understands some of their frustrations with the local planning process.

“There’s a reason why people go to Cheyenne to try to get a problem solved in their community,” he said. “They come down because they’re desperate, and they feel like they’re not getting heard.”

Still, Gierau said “Teton County’s planning issues are best handled in Teton County.”

The county doesn’t have regulatory or zoning power over public schools since the Department of Education is a state agency. The county had no say in the location of Munger Mountain Elementary in Hog Island, for example. But private schools must comply with county development rules.

Walker said the academy is focused on pursuing a new school through the local planning process but is also pursuing other options, especially given Wyoming’s struggles with overcrowded and underfunded public schools.

“Privately funded schools can, and should, play a role in meeting our education needs,” Walker said. “Leadership at JH Classical Academy has participated in initial discussions with stakeholders across the state regarding solutions that will ensure private and faith-based schools have a level playing field on which to support Wyoming students and families.”

Schwartz said public schools are held publicly accountable with an elected board, which is a different model from private schools.

Rich Bloom, a South Park resident who has galvanized opposition to placing the new school in the rural neighborhood, called the legislative effort an “egregious end-run” to strip local oversight of private schools.

On Jan. 3, county commissioners plan to review the academy’s proposal to expand the allowed building size from 10,000 square feet to 30,000 to accommodate a gym and auditorium at a future school. In order to allow such a big facility in the rural zone, the academy is asking the county to change its rural zoning regulations for the entire county.

As the Classical Academy outgrows its current facility and runs out of time on its lease, the school urgently needs a new home. Head of School Polly Friess said the school’s existing lease on church land on High School Road expires June 30. Teacher employment offers and enrollment for the 2019 school year need to happen this spring. Negotiations to potentially extend the current lease have been ongoing for more than a year, she said.

The legislative session starts Jan. 8.

Contact Allie Gross at 732-7063, county@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGcounty.

Allie Gross covers Teton County government. Originally from the Chicago area, she joined the News&Guide in 2017 after studying politics and Spanish at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

(4) comments

Noah Osnos

So, if I read this rightly, local control is for the little people, and moneyed, private interests should be able to legislate against it by currying favor with other locales? I seem to recall that coal country has reacted very badly to that process at the Federal level.

Dave Valley

Perhaps you're seeing it the wrong way.

Greg Epstein and Mike Yin are worried about an end run around local legislators. Perhaps that's because local legislators are forcing the school in that direction. It takes two to tango.

Let's face facts in regards to the "little people": local planning has rewarded the wealthy homeowners at the expense of everyone else in Teton County. Local planning has not represented the majority of residents, just the majority of homeowners. South Park and 3 Creek vigilantes join a long list of wealthy folks, and business interests, taking control of local politics to do their push their agendas.

Schwartz says local schools are publicly accountable with an elected board but fails to point out that local control hasn't meant quality schools that meet the needs of all Teton County students. We fail to properly educate our non-moneyed Latino population. We can't achieve ACT test scores in Teton County that exceed the average ACT test scores for over a dozen states despite having some of the highest spending per pupil in the nation in the richest county in the nation. A private school at least presents another option to the Teton County School District's poor results.

Additionally, Wyoming has been cutting school funding. Here is a private party building schools without an endless stream of taxpayer money.

If the Academy gets the support of the State, then that may actually help protect the character of rural land in Teton County since the State bill only applies to private schools. A broader change by Teton County to Teton County's land use regulations may open up other development options that the State bill would not allow.

Take a look at the actual amount of land being developed on the parcel across from 3 Creek. It's a blip on the radar screen. For the school's closest neighbors (3 Creek), the school's development will be hidden behind trees and berms. it's hours of operation start at the same time as the golf course at 3 Creek. The traffic is practically zero on that stretch of South Park Loop when the school opens and closes.

Rich Bloom who is leading the NIMBYs fight against the school's new building doesn't live within sight of the school's property according to the Teton County GIS, or even close enough to feel any perceived negative impact. His home blocks wildlife movement and his home disrupts the view shed of other homeowners. [unsure][unsure][unsure]

Dave Valley

[tongue_smile] Fix to comment....

" taking control of local politics to do their, and push their, agendas.

Can we get a 'edit comment' option on the forum?

Dave Valley

RE: "moneyed, private interests should be able to legislate against it by currying favor with other locales?"

Moneyed, private interests, are fighting against the school. The collective group of homeowners at 3 Creek, South Park, etc have far more wealth than the family behind the Classical Academy. And a few at 3 Creek may have more individual wealth. They curry favor with local and state reps. Don't fool yourself.

Jackson and Teton County love the idea of imposing their liberal agenda on the rest of the state but it doesn't get much traction for obvious reasons. Everyone has the right to petition their govt. anyway they see fit. Obviously, the voice of the poor and powerless is rarely as loud as that of the voice of the rich and powerful but I see this fight as between two wealthy stakeholder groups for the most part.

Welcome to the discussion.

Please note: Online comments may also run in our print publications.
Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Please turn off your CAPS LOCK.
No personal attacks. Discuss issues & opinions rather than denigrating someone with an opposing view.
No political attacks. Refrain from using negative slang when identifying political parties.
Be truthful. Don’t knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be proactive. Use the “Report” link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with us. We’d love to hear eyewitness accounts or history behind an article.
Use your real name: Anonymous commenting is not allowed.