School choice clashed with county control during a House committee debate over a bill to pave the way for the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to build a South Park campus.
Ultimately, six lawmakers voted to move the bill forward to the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives, where it must pass three readings and win Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature to become law. It passed the Senate on Jan. 23.
The proposal, Senate File 49, provides private schools throughout Wyoming the same exemptions from county zoning granted to public schools. Instead of following county planning processes as they do now, private schools would instead be required to conform “substantially” to Wyoming’s School Facilities Commission guidelines, from restrictions on site size to design standards for walls and roofs.
The legislation stems from the Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s effort to build a school in South Park. The bill would remove Teton County’s zoning authority over private schools, which county commissioners statewide see as an attack on local control. But the academy says it sought legislative relief because Teton County’s planning process has proven too onerous.
Steve Friess, who founded the academy with headmaster Polly Friess, described to the House committee a series of hurdles the school has faced in seeking to build the school through the county’s planning process, including a requirement to file various amendments to rural regulations and legal action from neighbors opposed to the new school.
Teton County turned down the school’s request to adjust regulations to allow a gym and auditorium exceeding 10,000 square feet, the building size limit in the rural zone.
“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,” Friess said.
Friess said he believes the bill “provides equality, and all we are really seeking is that a private school be treated identically, in similar fashion in terms of land use issues, with a public school.”
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont, the bill’s sponsor, said he brought the bill forward because the academy wasn’t being treated fairly, and its students were at risk of losing their school when its lease runs out at the end of the school year.
“That’s the genesis of this bill,” Bebout said.
Testimony in favor of the bill stressed the state Constitution’s provisions ensuring citizens’ rights to opportunities for education. It also focused on the importance of school choice and allowing parents and students to select the school right for their children.
“We should level the playing field between public schools and private schools, with regard to where they can be located,” former U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Cheyenne Republican, told the committee, “and recognize that not one size fits all, that there are students that are more appropriate in a different type of classroom setting than a public school.”
Attorney Jason Ochs, an academy parent, said education is the responsibility of the Legislature and emphasized the importance of allowing parents to choose the schools for their kids.
“Choice is critical for choosing how we’re going to raise and educate our children,” Ochs said, adding Senate File 49 allows private schools to fill gaps public schools can’t.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, testified against the bill, arguing private schools shouldn’t receive the same privileges as public schools, because public schools are run by publicly elected boards, which are accountable to all residents of a school district.
“Private schools, by the nature of their structure, have a private board and are essentially only responsible to parents, students and whoever is financing the school,” Schwartz said. “They do not have a direct responsibility to all the residents in the district. That’s a fundamental difference.”
Teton County School District No. 1 Trustee Janine Bay Teske told legislators that the bill isn’t fair, because public schools are required to conduct a public engagement process for building a new school but “there’s no process for a private school to have to go through.
“What this bill allows is it allows for a private school to locate itself in a community with absolutely no public process,” Teske said.
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Campbell, said private schools shouldn’t have to undergo the state’s public process because they aren’t built with public funds.
“When I build a home, I’m not going to ask for community input on what they think of my home being built and all the specifications there,” Clem said.
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners opposes the bill and sent a letter to lawmakers criticizing it as a pre-emption of local control. That’s a position shared by several commissioners from other counties who testified against the bill on the grounds that it overrides local country control over planning and zoning.
Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, told legislators that “there’s wisdom in deference to local institutions and the communities and residents that inform them.
“Wyoming’s county commissioners are not asking you to vote against the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, private schools or parent choice,” Rieman said. “Instead we’re asking you to maintain local control to reaffirm your belief in local government in this state.”
Lisa Johnson, who testified on behalf of Friends of South Park, a group that opposes locating the Classical Academy in the neighborhood, said local government, not the state, should control development locations because the counties will have to pay for infrastructure needed by that development. Bob McLaurin also testified against the bill on behalf of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.
But academy parent Ochs countered that there’s no local control pre-emption because education doesn’t fall under the purview of county zoning authority.
“You can’t take something away that was never theirs in the first place,” Ochs said. “Education is the state’s. Education is your responsibility, not local authority.”
The committee approved the bill 6-3, adding an amendment to make sure the bill would go into effect immediately, rather than in July, so that the academy could start on its new school promptly after a potential passage.
Reps. Jim Blackburn, R-Laramie; Aaron Clausen, R-Converse; Clem, Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen; Roy Edwards, R-Campbell; and Tyler Lindholm, R-Crook/Weston, voted in favor of the bill, while Reps. Andi Clifford, D-Fremont; Danny Eyre, R-Uinta; and Dan Furphy, R-Albany, voted against it.
“I encourage private schools,” Furphy said. “I’m concerned this bill opens it up statewide that a private school could be opened anywhere with no regulation from the locals controlling that school.”