A signature from Gov. Mark Gordon is the final step before a bill to remove county zoning authority over private schools becomes law in Wyoming.
Following days of heated floor debate, Senate File 49 cleared the House in a 33-26 vote Monday after passing through the Senate on Jan. 23.
Under the bill, instead of following county planning rules, private schools would need only “substantially” conform to state standards for public schools. Once signed by Gordon, the bill goes into effect immediately.
The legislation is rooted in the Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s effort to build a new private school campus in South Park.
Representatives of the Christian school, led by Steve and Polly Friess, said they sought legislative relief because Teton County’s planning process has proved too onerous after they encountered various “roadblocks” over two years, including a legal challenge from neighbors opposed to the school site.
Teton County commissioners also recently rejected a request to expand maximum building size countywide to allow for a gym and auditorium. However, no formal application to build a new school was ever filed.
“It is, in fact, the process that killed us, and the way that everything takes months and weeks to go through, and the ability along the way for the process to just be stretched out to the point where we have nowhere else to go but to come here to Cheyenne,” Steve Friess told lawmakers.
On the House floor Monday proponents of the bill argued that private schools should be treated the same as public schools. Wyoming’s public schools are not bound by county zoning but are required to follow rigorous public processes, like public studies and legislative approvals — processes it seems private schools won’t have to follow under Senate File 49.
Some representatives stressed that the bill was needed for the Classical Academy to survive.
“This is a desperate attempt to simply exist,” said Rep. Scott Clem, R-Campbell.
“There’s a school that is going to close without this fix,” said Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Natrona. “Hundreds of kids immediately, and thousands of kids over time whose futures are going to change forever.”
Though the Classical Academy’s lease on its current facility is set to end this summer there is a backup plan in place to use modular units as a stopgap, which Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette, noted when he said “There’s no way this school’s going to shut down. This isn’t a doomsday thing.”
Other supporters of Senate File 49, like Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Crook/Weston, said the bill comes down to protecting the school’s private property rights.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, countered that the bill actually provides one group, private schools, more property rights than other private landowners by providing schools a special exemption from county rules.
Those against the bill argued that planning for the Classical Academy, and school zoning generally, is best left to county officials to decide.
“This is the local electeds’ choice,” Rep. Landon Brown, R-Laramie, said. “This is these people’s choice. They voted their commissioners into this office to make these types of decisions.”
Both Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, and Sommers unsuccessfully pushed for several amendments throughout House review of the bill, seeking to temper the measure’s affect on counties statewide.
“I gave it everything I had,” Schwartz said.
Classical Academy spokeswoman Kristin Walker said that the school is pleased at the bill’s passage and that “the Wyoming Legislature recognized the current inequity private and religious schools face in terms of county zoning requirements.
“Private schools like JH Classical Academy are committed to being a part of meeting the education needs of Wyoming and Teton County,” she said in a statement.
The bill, Walker said, “provides a level playing field on which they can meet this objective and eliminates this obstacle for other private schools across the state.”
Critics of Senate File 49 fear it will have consequences far beyond the Classical Academy site in Teton County. Schwartz said the bill’s success will lead to more and more people throughout the state who are dissatisfied with county-level decisions bringing those grievances to the state Legislature.
“We’re sending a clear message to all the counties: You don’t like what happens, come on down and get it fixed in Cheyenne,” Schwartz said.
For Wilson attorney Len Carlman, who testified against the legislation in Cheyenne, the law’s vagueness opens it up to abuse.
“The term private school is not defined in the legislation,” he said.
For example, he said, a landowner could establish an intense use like a big concert venue and evade county zoning by calling it a private music school.
“There is all kind of mischief that clever people and clever promoters will think of to exploit the weakness in this law where it fails to define what is a private school and where it completely removes county authority over the uses and occupancy of the so-called private school properties,” Carlman said.
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association and Teton County commissioners opposed the bill as a pre-emption of local zoning control, also citing worries that unregulated private school development could incur significant infrastructure costs for counties. For Teton County Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia Macker the bill brings uncertainty of what the impact will be on Teton County.
“There are pieces of the bill that lack procedural clarity for me, as an individual commissioner,” Macker said.
For example, it’s unclear which state guidelines private schools will or won’t have to follow or who will enforce that.
The House and Senate leaders signed the bill Feb. 26. Gordon has three days after he receives the bill to sign it. If he doesn’t sign it, it becomes law in 15 days without his signature or a veto, according to the Legislative Services Office.
Many anticipate the law, if passed, will see a legal challenge in the courts. Schwartz is among those making that prediction. He also said that as soon as the Classical Academy gets its certificate of occupancy he will run a new bill to repeal the statute.
Walker said in a statement that the academy “looks forward to working with Teton County and key stakeholders to build a school that enhances local character, protects natural resources and wildlife and benefits the entire community. They believe strongly the challenges they have faced are a result of a flawed process, not people.
“The over 100 students, dozens of staff and faculty and countless families and supporters of JH Classical Academy are proud to be part of the Teton County community,” she said. “They are committed to working collaboratively to make Jackson an even better and stronger community while advancing education opportunities locally.”