This year’s primary for superintendent of public instruction, one of five statewide elected positions in Wyoming, has attracted the most candidates in nearly two decades.
Five candidates filed to run for the Republican nomination while one is running as a Democrat. In 2018, former superintendent of public instruction Jillian Balow, ran unopposed.
The primary election will take place on Aug. 16.
The job entails heading the Department of Education, spending long hours driving across the state visiting school districts and sitting on the State Board of Land Commissioners, the State Board of Education, the State Loan and Investment Board and the State Building Commission. The superintendent also serves as an ex officio trustee of the University of Wyoming.
WyoFile interviewed three Republican candidates in April about their stances on student mental health, teacher shortages and burnout and school choice. Those candidates include: former private Christian school administrator Brian Schroeder, who was appointed to the role by Gov. Mark Gordon in Jan. 2022; Megan Degenfelder, the former Chief Policy Officer at the Wyoming Department of Education who now works in the oil and gas industry; and Thomas Kelly, Sheridan-based chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University.
This week, WyoFile caught up with the newest race entrants to talk about platform and policy.
“I’m very comfortable saying that we will find consensus. And I use the plural pronoun ‘we.’ We will find consensus. Not me, not you, but we,” says Sergio Maldonado, sporting tangerine colored spectacles and a goatee on Wednesday afternoon.
An enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho tribe born in Riverton, Maldonado is running as the sole Democratic contender for Wyoming’s top education position. Inclusivity is a central part of his platform, he says.
His missions statement reads: “Education should be evenly and equitably distributed with love to every child regardless of age, gender, race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. That’s what education is about.”
Maldonado is a “teacher’s teacher,” and says he’s spent much of his life instructing — from running alcohol and drug education programs in a federal prison in Phoenix, to working as a diversity coordinator and instructor at Central Wyoming College, to his current job as a substitute teacher in Fremont County District 38.
Pulling out printed sheets of student test scores, he says, “when I look at data-driven scores and results, I know that my job is in front of me.” Improving these scores will be a central part of his mission “but we need to enlist the support, to a much greater level, of our families,” he says.
In one of the most heavily Republican states in the country, running as a Democrat for statewide elected office is an optimistic endeavor. It’s not his first bid, however. He’s challenged Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) for State Senate District 25 twice, and in 2016 ran as a Democrat for a House seat.
Although his bid is likely to be an uphill battle, Maldonado is undeterred. “Remember that we’re not going to base it on party politics. We’re going to base it upon the notion that this individual has the credentials, experience, the passion, the love to make our ed systems better.”
Casper resident Jennifer Zerba speaks quickly, jumping from interpretations of the Wyoming Constitution to her viewpoints on charter schools with hardly a breath in between.
As a lifelong Wyoming resident, Zerba says she will work to uphold the state constitution, and is dismayed by candidates claiming they will change school curricula. She points to Article Seven of the constitution, which states “neither the legislature nor the superintendent of public instruction shall have power to prescribe textbooks to be used in the public schools.”
If a superintendent does attempt to make these changes, Zerba says, lawsuits will surely follow.
She’s also averse to some of the discussions around charter schools and private education. “I am against charter schools, even if they’re not privatized for religious reasons, simply because we don’t have the money for it,” Zerba says. “If we already cut the budget by $300 million, where are they going to come up with the money to source new schools?”
During her 30 years working as a cosmetologist and head recruiter for Great Clips, Zerba also realized not enough Wyomingites are working in the trades. “We are blue collar and we do not have enough people filling those blue-collar jobs,” Zerba says. Changing that will also be a top priority.
Money and time are being wasted because no one has bothered to consult educators, she says. “They are so burnt out, they are so stressed, they are tired of not being supported,” Zerba says.
Zerba notes she’s been walking the halls of Wyoming schools since 1976. “And I continue walking the halls as a board certified substitute teacher. I have seen from personal experience what has been going on in our education system.”
This experience sets her apart from other candidates, she says. “When it’s all said and done, the education that our students receive needs to be able to prepare them for the world. And they need to have the skills in order to do that. And teaching to the test does not do that.”
Robert White, an underground trona miner based in Rock Springs, decided to run for superintendent of public instruction roughly a month ago. He’s been disturbed by news reports of skirmishes between school boards and parents and discussions around curriculum.
“Just the lack of communication between schools and parents now,” White said, “that’s something I really want to change.”
His top priority is addressing school shootings and he wants to audit Wyoming schools’ crisis management systems. His second focus is lowering classroom sizes and paying teachers more. Lastly, he wants “to get in there and really get a handle on what our children are being taught.”
White has two kids, one in first grade and the other in fourth, but doesn’t have an education background, which he says gives him a different perspective.
Working in various supervisory roles during his time in the Marine Corps gave him the leadership experience to prepare him to take on the responsibility of managing WDE, he says.