By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com
JACKSON — Teton County’s school superintendent joined a statewide debate Wednesday, suggesting to lawmakers that a private school should meet state and federal standards if it is to enjoy the same zoning independence afforded public schools.
The Wyoming Senate is considering Senate File 49 — County zoning authority-private schools that would exempt some private schools from local zoning laws. The move would grant private schools zoning independence similar to that afforded to public schools.
The Senate Education Committee, with one abstention, unanimously recommended approval of the bill Wednesday with an amendment saying such schools should meet state construction standards for public schools.
Teton County Schools Superintendent Gillian Chapman wrote lawmakers and other officials Monday in response to inquiries about the district’s position on the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, her letter said. The private nonprofit school seeks to build a campus in a rural zone where its plans for two large buildings are not allowed under Teton County regulations.
Chapman wrote that if the private school is to enjoy the same zoning independence as public schools, “it would seem important that they follow all state and federal requirements to be considered as a school and not pick and choose which statutes will or won’t be followed.
“Their teachers do not have to follow the same certification and licensing requirements,” she wrote. “They can choose which students to accept or deny for admittance. They choose their curriculum and they do not take state assessments. They do not follow state or federal requirements for schools.”
The son and daughter-in-law of unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and GOP mega-donor Foster Friess launched the Jackson Hole Classical Academy. Foster Friess has said through an aide that his “platform and influence” would increase chances of the anti-zoning bill passing.
Steve and Polly Friess are proposing the school’s expansion in the rural zone where Teton County years ago placed restrictions on building sizes. The school now serves approximately 100 students — a larger campus could educate more than 200.
Steve Friess lobbied the education committee Wednesday, testifying that the county regulations were “a burden on private religious schools.” He said that after resolving one county requirement, another obstacle would arise.
“The bar just got raised higher and higher,” he told the committee.
Former Teton County Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb has rejected that assertion, saying the only goalposts the county has moved have made it easier for the school to be approved.
Teton County rules create “grave inequities between how a public school is treated and how a private school is treated,” Steve Friess said. The academy would not seek to expand or become a charter school under the state public school umbrella because of a religious component, he said.
“State dollars can’t go to a religious institution,” he told lawmakers. “We say the Lord’s Prayer every day. We say prayers before meals.”
He touted the rigor of the institution saying a kindergarten student boasted of checkmating a father in chess, that Latin is taught in second grade, that transferring students sometimes have to drop back a grade to catch up.
Only through the bill would the academy be able to immediately put up modular units this year while construction begins on the actual campus, he said. “I do not see a path forward if we do not have an exemption,” he said.
The existing school building must be vacated because an adjoining church wants it “for their own purposes,” he told lawmakers. Twenty-two months of negotiations could not break that deadlock, he said.
Several Teton County residents who attended the committee meeting in Cheyenne said the bill imposes an unfunded mandate on local governments to serve an institution removed from core development areas. The amendment proposed Wednesday cures none of the bill’s problems, they said.
Len Carlman said in a telephone interview that lawmakers are trying to patch a roof when a foundation is crumbling. Likening the bill to a structure, he said “this building is not habitable, it needs to be condemned.”
Another Teton County critic who spoke to the committee, Glen Esnard, said in a telephone interview that the legislation gives undue authority to a private school.
“This law, even as amended, gives private schools greater latitude to build where and what and when they want with virtually zero oversight,” he said. “That’s a power that no other private enterprise in this state has.”
Sen. Mike Gierau, (D-Jackson) has said he would be a co-sponsor of the legislation.
WyoFile did not immediately receive a response from a classical academy spokeswoman regarding questions raised by superintendent Chapman. But in an interview with WyoFile, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) addressed some of the issues.
“We have zoning laws … and that is a set of restrictions that precludes a private school in this instance from doing something that a public school could do,” he said.
He called zoning laws that are stricter for private schools than public ones “an equal-protection issue regarding the Constitution’s guarantee for education.
“Freedom and equity is what we’re protecting,” he said.
“It’s apples and oranges,” he said of the difference between control of teacher certification compared to control of zoning requirements.
“We don’t zone teachers. We zone buildings.”
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