Jackson school expansion battle could be settled in Cheyenne


By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com

A dispute over a proposed private school expansion in Teton County has some legislators girding for a renewed fight over local vs. state control in the upcoming legislative session — this time with Foster Friess’ political influence and spending power in the fray.

Supported by the nonprofit family foundation of unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, the Jackson Hole Classical Academy wants to build a new campus in an area that doesn’t currently permit the proposed development. The request is riling neighbors, consuming county officials and now spilling over county lines into state politics. The school would construct 116,000 square-feet of buildings on part of an 80-acre rural site.

Teton County rules limit the size of structures in rural zones to 10,000 square feet and would prohibit construction of two large buildings proposed for the private, nonprofit school. Commissioners are scheduled to decide early next year whether to change rural zoning rules throughout the county to allow buildings up to 30,000 square feet and open the door for development of the new campus — a decision that school proponents could circumvent with help from Cheyenne.

School backers have begun lobbying state lawmakers for “legislative relief” from the county restrictions, according to Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Teton County) and other lawmakers.

So far, both the county’s planning commission and senior planner are recommending commissioners reject the change. The planners’ recommendations were made public Dec. 12, the day Schwartz said a school backer called him to lobby for support.

The call came from Steve Friess, husband of Polly Friess. She is listed on IRS forms as the nonprofit Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s principal officer. Steve is the son of Lynn and Foster Friess and a paid staffer for the Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation. That family nonprofit with $73 million in assets supports the school through hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual charitable donations, according to tax filings.

“He called me and spoke to me briefly [saying] they had a problem,” Schwartz told WyoFile. Friess suggested school backers “might seek legislative relief,” Schwartz said.

Steve Friess told WyoFile over the telephone “we’re not talking to reporters at this time.” But Kristin Walker, a spokeswoman for the academy, issued a statement confirming a statewide outreach.

“Leadership at JH Classical Academy has participated in initial discussions with stakeholders across the state,” it read, “regarding solutions that will ensure private and faith-based schools have a level playing field on which to support Wyoming students and families.” Private schools are subject to local zoning control but public schools, which are governed by elected officials and supported by taxpayer funds, are generally exempt from zoning rules.

“Foster’s platform and influence increases chances of passage of legislation allowing private schools to enjoy the less restrictive zoning of government schools,” Bailey Shelbourne, an aide to Foster Friess wrote WyoFile in an email.

22 is one of a kind

Teton County has wrestled recently with statewide lawmakers who seek to overrule local ordinances, from residential fence standards to requirements that developers supply affordable housing or fees in-lieu. Last legislative session Teton County representatives helped kill a bill that would prevent counties from imposing affordable-housing requirements.

They told Senate committee members the issue arose from a local dust-up and could and should be settled on the county level, Rep. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) told WyoFile. The committee killed the bill with a 3-2 vote.

Last month Teton County Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb detailed myriad reasons why rules requiring residential fences be friendly to wildlife are necessary in his jurisdiction. Agricultural operations are exempt from the regulations and benefit from them, he told a legislative committee

“Wildlife is going to have to find a way to get to its winter feedground,” Newcomb told lawmakers. “It’s going to get channeled through the ag property. It’s going to cause a lot of headaches to the ranch owner.”

But his explanations to the Joint Agriculture State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee failed to convince. All but one member voted last month to advance a bill that would prohibit counties from adopting fence rules that vary from state standards.

Now, state lawmakers are being lobbied about private-school zoning.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all three issues grow out of Teton County, where development continues at a fever pitch in a tourist community with limited private land surrounded by wildlife.

“Teton County’s a little different,” said Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Sublette), a rancher who has a close outsider’s view of the community from his ranch just over the Hoback Rim. “There’s a great pressure on development in Teton County that I don’t know that people in the rest of the state understand.”

“I support local communities’ ability to zone,” Sommers told WyoFile. “The issue with those types of scenarios will always be the balance between local authority and private-property rights.”

For the state to override local control, he said, “you’d have to see [an] egregious event.” Differences among Teton and the state’s other 22 counties regarding income, developable land, political outlook and other factors, however, could refract one’s view of “egregious.”

“To the rest of us outside, it looks like extreme measures have been taken, sometimes,” Sommers said of state lawmakers considering Teton County ordinances.

The view from Jackson Hole

Jackson Hole has its own take on the state, recently expressed by columnist Paul Hansen in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “Many Wyoming state leaders complain incessantly about federal interference but are all too happy to interfere with town and county governance,” he wrote in his Nov. 28 Common Ground column.

He cites the scale of highway construction, fence standards, how lodging tax revenues are spent and whether to impose a real estate transfer tax as subjects about which the Legislature has handcuffed local elected officials.

“Local decision-making in government is alleged to be a supreme virtue — only until localities do something politicians and their special interest donors don’t like,” he wrote. “The hypocrisy is obvious.”

But school supporters feel the county has put up “huge road blocks” to stop their project, Rep Jim Roscoe, (I-Wilson) wrote in an email to WyoFile. He relayed that comment after speaking with Steve Friess regarding the tiff, he wrote.

Rep. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who will be a senator in the next legislative session, anticipates legislation will be proposed to override Teton County’s authority on the school development. “I know there’s some sort of bill coming,” he said. “They feel like they’ve been given the short end of the stick,” he said of the Friess family.

While Gierau listed some gripes by school supporters that he believes have merit, he said he hopes for “a fair process, a just process, a timely process,” in Teton County.

“I would rather have this settled in the Teton County chambers rather than the House, the governor’s mansion or than anywhere else in Cheyenne,” he said.

Rep. Schwartz said he told Steve Friess he was aware of the local issue and would keep it in mind. “I basically think there should be local control,” he told WyoFile. “I don’t believe the Legislature should be making determinations of county zoning.”

Friess family’s wealth and influence

Foster Friess, a multimillionaire investor and philanthropist, brought his resources to bear in an unsuccessful 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary campaign. He contributed at least $2.2 million of his own funds to his effort, according to reporting in the Casper Star-Tribune.

The foray into Wyoming politics marked a shift from earlier attention to national campaigns — most famously his backing of Rick Santorum in Santorum’s unsuccessful presidential bids.

Since Friess’s gubernatorial primary loss, he has continued to engage himself in Wyoming matters, including calling for an election-law change that would prohibit party switching in primaries, an effort that he said would ensure Republicans nominate true conservatives.

He has also advocated for transparency of the state’s bookkeeping, supporting an “open the books” effort that seeks an online spreadsheet of Wyoming revenues and expenditures.

The Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation, which reported $73 million in assets in the latest IRS filings available through the online nonprofit listing Charity Navigator, regularly donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Jackson Hole Classical Academy and its operations, according to IRS filings (see documents below).

The family foundation also donates to the Community Bible Church, an entity that owns the property on which the existing Jackson Hole Classical Academy is housed. The latest IRS filings available from Charity Navigator show $794,205 donation from the foundation to the church in the year ending April 30, 2017 and a $264,735 donation to the Classical Academy for a property lease.

The Friess foundation also listed on a depreciation schedule a school site acquired in 2014, valued at $4.2 million and set to depreciate over four years. The filings listed no location for the site.

Responding to a request for an interview with Foster Friess about his relationship to state government, aide Shelbourne provided a statement. Writing that daily media requests can be overwhelming, she asked WyoFile to submit questions in writing.

The Jackson Hole Classical Academy

The Jackson Hole Classical Academy reported 30 employees in the latest nonprofit filing available through Charity Navigator. It listed $2.1 million in total functional expenses.

The filings list revenue of $1,217,119 million in tuition revenue and a body of 78 students. Calculations by WyoFile put the average tuition at $15,604. But 35 recipients shared in a total of $382,200 in financial aid for an average of $10,920 a student, according to the filing.

“The mission of Jackson Hole Classical Academy is to cultivate within its students the wisdom and virtue necessary to discover their God-given potential and contribute to a flourishing and free society,” the 2017 filing states.

 The academy wants to build a K-12 campus on an 80-acre site south of Jackson, on ranch property zoned as rural land. Critics say the facility should be built on land that’s zoned to allow the size of buildings proposed, that choosing rural land shifts costs to neighbors of the proposed site, some of whom bought property banking on the zoning restrictions.

In his interview with WyoFile, Rep. Gierau repeatedly referred to the school as a “Christian Academy,” though it does not advertise any religious affiliation. Steve Friess took him on a tour of the school which, Gierau said was “very impressive,” including the teaching of Latin in the second grade.

Academy spokeswoman Walker said in her statement that school supporters are focused first on the local planning process. “JH Classical Academy has worked diligently for many years to find a solution that ensures continued education for their students while proposing a school that fits within the land development regulations and aligns with community character,” she wrote.

County commissioners appear to be considering that issue seriously. The board spent hours Dec. 18 listening to resident input on whether operating hours in rural zones should start at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. The change would allow the school to operate normally. Commissioners approved the request.

Changes to allow larger buildings are the next debate to be taken up in January. “Currently, private Jackson Hole Classical Academy must purchase 200 acres, conserve 180 acres and build a school in modules not exceeding 10,000 square feet,” Friess aide Shelbourne wrote to WyoFile. The senior county planner recommended denial of the change, writing that the rural zone “is the least appropriate location in the County for the large structures.”

Before state lawmakers weigh in Teton denizens will have another opportunity to speak, perhaps in a replay of the recent hearing regarding school hours.

That brought out old-timers, newcomers, neighbors, students’ parents and activists to a good old-fashioned Teton County zoning fracas. Former county commissioner Hank Phibbs told the board it had a “fundamental responsibility to protect rural character,’ in the tourist-oriented, wildlife-rich community. Teton County fought successfully all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court defending the current rural structure size limit, he said.

But school supporter Andy Chambers, a valley native who is third-generation Jackson Hole stock, said current rules are only the latest in a series of plans that are always being changed. He quoted his pioneering grandmother as once saying “Aah hell, Andy, this place was ruined in the ’50s.”