JACKSON — 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.