By Andrew Graham
CHEYENNE – A bill to override Teton County zoning regulations on behalf of a private school owned by members of the family of prominent GOP donor Foster Friess passed its final vote in the House on Monday.
After days of drawn out debate on the House floor and numerous unsuccessful attempts to amend the bill to provide some protections for local control, the bill passed the House 33-26 on its final vote.
An hour later the Senate voted to accept minor House amendments made to Senate File 49 – County zoning authority-private schools. The bill now goes to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.
The third House debate, like the previous two, pitted defenders of local control against school proponents who argued the county commissioners had railroaded the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, endangering its students’ opportunity for an education.
The school is owned by Steve and Polly Friess, the son and daughter-in-law of former gubernatorial candidate and influential donor to conservative causes Foster Friess.
Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) offered an amendment Monday to delay the bill becoming law until 2020. The delay would give the Teton County Commission and the Friess family time to resolve their differences before the Legislature eradicates county authority to restrict development of private schools, he said.
“In this intervening year we allow these two bodies to come to terms and create a local solution,” Sommers said.
Sommers also argued it would not leave the students without a school, since it was unlikely they’d be able build a campus by this coming fall. The school is already looking for modular units to house its students, he said.
Steve Friess and other proponents have argued there is a constitutional imperative to overrule the county commission. Their argument in part is that the school’s students will be robbed of their educational opportunities if the Legislature doesn’t act now and give the school a chance to be built.
Sommers’ amendment would still give the school a powerful negotiating tool with the county, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). “It continues the conversation with a pretty heavy hammer that if you don’t figure this out by next year, it happens automatically,” Zwonitzer said.
Rep. Landen Brown (R-Cheyenne), supported Sommers’ amendment.
“There’s never been a formal application made to the commissioners,” he said.. “Mind you we’re in a situation right now where we’re going to change state law for something that’s never even gone through the process … this gives another opportunity for that process to take place.”
The bill had fierce backers on the House floor, however, who fought every attempt to amend the bill and reduce its impact on local control across Wyoming’s 23 counties. Sommers’ amendment failed 27-31.
In closing debate on the bill, opponents and proponents returned to their original arguments. The bill was a case of the Legislature overriding local control on behalf of a single party, opponents said. It was a chance to give private schools footing equal to public schools, proponents said. Public schools in Wyoming are generally exempt from county zoning regulations.
The bill was not “public schools versus private schools,” but “private schools versus private landowners,” said Jackson Rep. Mike Yin (D).
“Do you want to elevate this one group’s private property rights over the private property rights of every single other landowner in Teton County?” Yin asked.
Another Jackson representative argued the bill was part of a sustained attack on Teton County zoning regulations. Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) said residents and business owners who believe their wishes restricted by the rules have come to Cheyenne this session seeking to circumvent policies crafted by local elected officials.
“Come down to Cheyenne and you’ll get what you need,” is the suggestion that Schwartz said is being offered to Teton County business owners and residents who don’t like county rules.
In the Legislature, “I don’t think there’s really a complete understanding of how complicated it can be in Teton County,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz cited the millions of visits to Teton County by tourists planning to experience two national parks and world-class skiing. The county’s first obligations are to preserving the ecosystems around the national parks and the resort atmosphere those natural amenities give Jackson. The next obligation is “ensuring we have a community,” Schwartz said.
“We want to be a place where teachers and nurses and law enforcement and firefighters can live side by side with all the people who want to live there because it’s a world-class resort,” he said.
Opponents argued the county is suppressing the school and denying its students a right to education. “This is a desperate attempt to simply exist,” said Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette).
The school will close if the Legislature doesn’t pass the bill, said Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper). There are “hundreds of kids immediately and thousands of kids over time whose lives are going to change forever,” he said.
With the exception of Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), the bill has been opposed by every member of the Teton County delegation. Gierau co-sponsored the bill.
Other House lawmakers argued the Legislature was being manipulated by wealthy petitioners — the Friess family. “If this was the ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ coming to get a thing, would we be fighting as hard for that?” asked Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River).
The arguments for local control, often a campaign platform for Wyoming’s Republican candidates, did not win out in the Legislature.
One recent candidate who spoke often about the importance of local control is new Gov. Mark Gordon. He has been mum on how he’ll treat the bill, telling WyoFile in a Feb. 8 interview he had concerns about its impact on local control but was withholding judgement.
“The particular bill that’s brought forward is brought forward because of a situation in one county,” Gordon said. “I’m a Republican — that’s part of our mantra is government closest to the people is the most responsive government.”
But Gordon also said, “I think this bill has been carefully thought through so I’m anxious to review the testimony and look at the final product when it comes through.”
If Gordon vetoes the bill, the Legislature will have to muster a two-thirds majority in both House and Senate to override him. Senate File 49 passed the Senate 23-6.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.