Overcrowding and underfunding of public schools are being held up as an argument in favor of approval of a controversial plan by the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to expand in South Park.
The private religious school recently became the subject of proposed legislation to grant private schools the same exemptions from Teton County zoning as public schools.
The bill — Senate File 49 — comes before the Wyoming Senate this morning in Cheyenne for a third and final vote. SF 49 proposes to remove county oversight and zoning authority over private schools, instead requiring them to conform to the same guidelines for siting and construction as public schools.
The proposal comes amid a divisive local battle over the Classical Academy’s proposed new school campus south of town, which has riled neighbors who fear it threatens the rural character of South Park. After Teton County rejected a proposal from the academy to increase the maximum building size to allow for a gym and auditorium, the bill was filed, designed to exempt the academy from county zoning rules and procedures.
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, supports the bill, saying Teton County should embrace and accommodate private schools given Teton County School District’s capacity problems and overcrowded classrooms, and the state of Wyoming’s shortage of funds for public schools.
“Along come some folks who actually want to build a school that might ease some of those burdens,” Gierau said. “I think we should give them an opportunity to do so.”
It’s for the overcrowded kids
Academy spokesperson Kristin Walker has also invoked public school crowding and school choice as reasons for pursuing the bill.
“JH Classical Academy is committed to being part of the solution in meeting our local and state education needs,” Walker said. “Here in Jackson and around Wyoming, many of our public schools are overcrowded and our state funding shortfall means we have fewer resources to deal with more students. Privately funded schools can, and should, play a role in meeting our education needs.”
With academy representatives saying the legislation’s failure would mean the school could shut down at the end of the school year, Teton County School District No. 1 is fielding questions about what the private school fight means for the public school system.
District Superintendent Gillian Chapman told lawmakers and local elected officials last week that despite rumors to the contrary the school district could absorb any students if the Academy closes after the school year. Public schools are required to educate all students who reside in their district.
And overcrowding isn’t an issue in all of the buildings. Although the district is seeking a construction remedy for crowded middle school classrooms, elementary schools have plenty of room.
“If they closed we would have space for their elementary students, and there are so few middle and high school students we would be able to accommodate them,” Chapman wrote in an email. “In reality, we have no choice as a public school but to accept students to enroll who live in our county.”
The Academy has a lower kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school with 78 students and an upper seventh-through-10th-grade school with 22 students. If the school were to close next year, elementary students would be placed in neighborhood public schools. The only one already at 100 percent capacity is Wilson Elementary School. Colter Elementary School can accommodate 35 more before hitting capacity and Jackson Elementary School can accommodate 179 more students than are now enrolled.
While enrollment varies on a day-to-day basis, Jackson Hole Middle School currently has 710 students enrolled with a capacity of 754, and Jackson Hole High School has 715 students enrolled with a capacity of 973.
Savings for public education?
In a pitch to the Senate, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont, performed some calculations on the Senate floor, estimating before his colleagues that 150 Teton County students educated with private dollars could add up to $3 million to $4 million in savings for the state.
“It saves the state money,” Bebout said, noting that’s not the main reason he brought the bill forward, but more of a bonus.
Bebout’s enrollment and funding numbers were inflated. School districts are funded by the state at a fixed amount per student, something called average daily membership. According to figures from the Wyoming Department of Education’s 2017-18 General Fund Expenditures, Teton County School District No. 1 received $17,464 per student last year. Since there are 100 students now enrolled at the Academy, that would amount to $1.75 million in “savings.”
Alternately, were the Academy to close and send its students to the public school system, the school district would be funded for each additional student.
While the Wyoming Department of Education declined comment on the idea that private schools save the state money, it’s also true that public schools need a critical mass of students to survive.
So in a time of budget cuts, more students — although they need more services — do result in more money, at least on the surface. And fewer students have proven to be a nail in the coffin of public schools in other areas of the state, forced to close due to an economic downturn.
A level playing field
Earlier in the review process Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Albany, amended the legislation to remove county zoning oversight over private schools, adding a requirement that the private schools conform to similar building and siting standards for public schools. Rothfuss said his updated version of the bill seeks “equity” and “equal protection under the law” for public and private schools.
“What I see is that a problem with the equity of our statute was raised with a situation,” Rothfuss said.
The amended version would require private schools to “substantially” meet standards in the 134 pages of Wyoming’s School Facilities Commission guidelines. That includes restrictions on site size (20 acres plus an additional acre for each 100 students for a high school, for example), compliance with accessibility for disabled people and design standards for walls and roofs.
“We really have to make sure that these private schools in regards to zoning and with regard to regulation have to be on equal footing to the public schools,” Rothfuss said. “And we provide pretty significant allowances to public schools when it comes to zoning, so the fact that these private schools were running into massive hurdles, that’s inequitable.”
Many tout the value of providing families choices about where their kids go to school, and public schools are different than private schools — religious and nonreligious. In her letter to legislators and local officials, Chapman wrote that private, religious institutions like the Academy aren’t bound by certification and licensing requirements and can choose which students to admit.
“In pondering if they should be considered a school and therefore exempt from following county land use requirements, it would seem important that they follow all state and federal requirements to be considered as a school and not pick and choose which statutes will or won’t be followed,” Chapman wrote.
Elaine Marces, who licenses nonreligious private schools at the Department of Education, said a license is required to operate legally in Wyoming. That means annually demonstrating the private school meets standards like teaching particular areas of knowledge (reading, math, science, arts); provides for the certification of teachers and staff; and reports numbers of students and their attendance and performance on assessments.
Two local private schools have Wyoming licenses: Teton Science Schools and Jackson Hole Community School, Marces said.
The First Amendment’s religious protections ensure that religious schools, like the Academy, are exempt from any state licensing requirements. That doesn’t mean they can’t choose to follow some of those requirements, but the Classical Academy was unable by press time to answer questions about teacher licensing, state assessments, state standards, disability accessibility or special needs students. The News&Guide originally emailed questions about those requirements on Jan. 18.
State standards, head of Journeys School Nancy Lang said, are the “foundation” of what the school teaches.
“We tie our learning objectives to the Common Core,” she said. “That’s a starting point for us.”
“We follow all state regulations regarding safety and security,” said Amy Fulwyler, head of the Community School, in an email. “And we do not discriminate in employment, recruitment, admission or the administration of any of our programs on the basis of race, creed, national or ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, or physical disability.”
Journeys School has a similar nondiscrimination policy. Although the Classical Academy has a nondiscrimination policy for student admission, it leaves out religion, creed, sexual orientation and physical disability as protected classes. The school was unable before press time to answer questions clarifying its employment nondiscrimination policy.
In addition to being licensed by the Wyoming Department of Education, the valley’s two other private schools are accredited by various bodies. Jackson Hole Community School and Journeys School of Teton Science Schools are accredited by the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, known as NWAIS. The Community School has accreditation by AdvancED, and Journeys’ curriculum is accredited by the International Baccalaureate.
Lang said the NWAIS accreditation process is a thorough one, with the full reaccreditation process every seven years and interim assessments with lengthy reports required throughout. The association also conducts site visits.
The bill is set to be discussed on the Senate floor at 10 a.m. today. If passed it will go to the Wyoming House of Representatives for review.