A new letter from the Teton County School District to lawmakers makes the case that legislation aiming to create an equal playing field for public and private schools fails to accomplish that goal.
The bill, Senate File 49, was brought forth by the Jackson Hole Classical Academy and sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont. It would exempt private schools from the county planning and zoning process, instead requiring them to “substantially” follow standards applied to Wyoming’s public schools.
The academy pursued the legislation after hitting “roadblocks” navigating Teton County’s strict processes, including the county’s refusal to increase the building size in rural areas to allow a 15,000- to 30,000-square-foot gym and auditorium.
Proponents of the legislation have argued that it “levels the playing field” by treating public and private schools equally.
“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,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Albany. “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.”
However, Teton County School District Superintendent Gillian Chapman wrote in a Feb. 18 memo to lawmakers that the bill would not create equity among private and public institutions, because under the proposed legislation, public schools would be held to higher standards than private ones.
Chapman’s letter outlines rigorous processes and requirements that Wyoming public school districts must meet to build new schools. That includes a Most Cost Effective Remedy study through the State Facilities Department.
“This is a very public process that relies on elected officials at the local and state level who are accountable to their constituents,” the letter said.
The study is reviewed by the elected board of trustees, the School Facilities Commission and the Legislature, the letter says.
The state also requires public schools to develop five sets of plans for a new school, with state review for compliance at each stage. They can build schools only for existing capacities, not projected capacities.
Public schools must also follow rules about allowable square footage per student.
For example, Chapman’s letter said, the proposed 110,000-square-foot Classical Academy facility in South Park (preliminary plans showed a larger facility at about 116,000 square feet) would serve about 130 students, resulting in 846 square feet per student. That doesn’t follow state guidelines, “nor is it equitable to other Wyoming school districts with K-12 schools,” the letter said.
The state’s allowable square footage for a K-12 school is 251.24 square feet per student. At its current capacity of 130 students the academy could theoretically build 32,661 square feet. Yet the proposed academy is more than three times that.
The district’s letter also flagged that it’s “unclear” how private schools’ compliance with state guidelines will be enforced.
“The measure does not appear to address how violations will be dealt with,” it said.
Troy Decker, of the Wyoming State Construction Department, said in a Jan. 22 email that the bill’s language doesn’t require the state’s School Facilities Commission to enforce its guidelines for private school design, “but rather the ‘professional engineer or architect of record’ has that responsibility.”
Chapman has previously emailed lawmakers acknowledging the differences between public and private schools, such as private schools not having to license teachers or admit all students.
Chapman sent the letter Feb. 18 to Reps. Tom Walters, R-Natrona, Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, Mike Yin, D-Teton, Pat Sweeney, R-Natrona, Bob Nicholas R-Laramie, and Jim Roscoe, I-Teton/Lincoln/Sublette. Yin said he passed it along to all reps Tuesday.
Senate File 49 is expected to be taken up by the full House this week. Yin said he and Schwartz are looking for “middle ground” to “make sure there’s some planning oversight for communities so they can handle the infrastructure of the school, and just have that public community planning input in the process.”