Staff at the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy in Guernsey spent part of Dec. 17 counting camouflage pants.
The military reform program for high school students, funded in part by the state but mostly by the U.S. Department of Defense, was inventorying equipment in case it soon needed to be sold, according to WCCA Deputy Director David Salazar.
Ellen Long helped with the count. She’d recently returned to work for the program, drawn, she said, by a connection with students who need someone to “set them on the right track.” Long had once needed the same, she said, and her work at the school was compelling enough for her to move from her native Florida back to Guernsey.
How much longer she and 40 other employees at the small academy — which adjoins the Army National Guard base in Guernsey — will have work is another question. In November, Gov. Mark Gordon proposed terminating the program’s funding to save the state about $1.5 million a year among hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts statewide.
Officials at the academy had just a few hours warning that the governor’s budget proposal would eliminate their program before Gordon publicized the document, Salazar told WyoFile.
WCCA has its skeptics, but advocates say the program’s impact on the lives of employees in Platte and Goshen counties, as well as its past and future students, is outsized. And no one disputes that the loss of 41 stable jobs would be a gut punch to Guernsey, a high plains town of around 1,200 that’s already reeling from the closure of another key employer — a BNSF Railway machine shop
In December, following a wave of supportive testimony, the Joint Appropriations Committee rejected Gordon’s recommendation, and instead proposed a 20% cut — around $600,000 — to the school’s biennial budget. But a final state budget is likely months of closed-door wheeling and dealing from being completed. The program and its community’s fate will remain undecided until then.
As the governor and the Legislature continue to prioritize cuts over new revenue sources as they try to balance a yawning budget deficit, the fight over the WCCA is illustrative of the difficult choices, and real human impacts, ahead.
When she entered WCCA at age 17, Gertrude Moss was so shy that staff recall her hardly speaking at all.
Five-and-a-half months later, Moss sang the national anthem at her cohort’s graduation ceremony.
Moss, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who lives in Hudson, is now completing her high school diploma at age 20. She credits the Cowboy Challenge Academy for boosting her confidence at a difficult point in her life, exemplified by the moment a commanding officer asked her to sing the anthem and she overcame her nerves and shyness to do so.
“It was one of the best things I ever did,” she said of that performance. Through a trip to a job fair in Casper, the academy sparked Moss’s interest in phlebotomy, a career she hopes to pursue after securing her diploma, she said. She still wakes up early because of the military discipline acquired in the program.
Moss’s time at the school did not count toward her high school diploma, a fact that has caused friction with public school districts. The academy became an accredited school in 2018, however. In the 2017-18 school year it graduated around 120 students over two semesters of small classes, mixed with physical training, volunteer work and disciplined communal living. The school aims to graduate up to 200 students a year, Salazar said.
The program’s supporters and staff describe it as a home for students struggling with traditional high school who are in danger of going further off track.
Some graduates worry the cut will mean one fewer option for Wyoming children facing adverse living situations or struggling to succeed at school.
“If I was able to benefit from that kind of thing, then I imagine it would benefit a lot of kids,” Andrew Ross, a small business owner in Casper who completed the program in 2010, said. “It was definitely a stepping stone to where I am today.”
Gordon described the funding cut as one of the few he could make in public education — though run by the Wyoming Military Department, the academy is funded from the same pot that supports K-12 public schools. Some people familiar with the proposed cut said its orphaned nature — not core to a military mission, nor housed under the Wyoming Department of Education — made it an easy target for cuts.
Lawmakers and school officials point out that the academy can change outcomes for high school students.
“These kids are at a crossroads in their lives where they’re going to be contributing members of a society, or a burden on our state infrastructure,” Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) said in his defense of the program.
The school targets students 16-18 years old, according to budget documents. Those students are often individuals who are struggling in school and may come from economically disadvantaged homes or homes where one or both parents are often absent, Salazar said. The school does not accept students who have been charged with felonies, he said, but instead students who might be headed down that road. Judges are known to use enrollment in the school as a form of informal probation, he said.
Students who require intensive treatment for psychological or substance abuse reasons often don’t make it through the program, Salazar said, because the school does not have the resources to deal with them.
It is, instead, a place for students on the edge, who with a little discipline and the positive example of peers and staff, can avoid worse outcomes that are also more expensive for the state, Salazar said.
Support for the program is not universal, even among Wyoming’s public education advocates.
Some public school officials and lawmakers argue it takes resources from the broader education system and uses them in part on out-of-state students — around a quarter of the program’s graduates are from other states. WCCA prioritizes Wyoming students, however.
Some even wonder why the small school has become the subject of a budget dispute at all.
In a newspaper column, Wyoming Women’s Action Network founder Jen Simon suggested the attempt to save the program was further evidence of a gender bias in the Legislature. The all-male legislative committee is supportive of a school with military credentials, even as it didn’t bat an eye at steep cuts to other programs with similar aims, she wrote.
JAC’s vote came in the first round of budget drafting, and there is a long road and many votes to go before the school’s fate will be decided. Added to the precariousness is the fact that the Legislature has yet to announce when it will convene to consider Gordon’s budget proposal.
The uncertainty is hitting home in Guernsey. Staff worry about the town, as well as their students.
Gordon’s announcement came seven months after BNSF Railway announced it would pull 87 jobs out of the town by closing a mechanical shop that served coal lines. The railroad was the town’s longstanding economic engine. Behind it comes the military facilities, WCCA included.
Many of those railroad employees continue to live in the town and commute long distances to work at other BNSF hubs. Locals aren’t sure how long such arrangements will last.
“I was really scared when they lost the railroad but then this came up and it was like, ‘what does this town have?’” Corrin Nogle, a social studies teacher and the school’s lead instructor, said. Her husband is a railroad worker, and when the company made its layoffs he took new work in Minnesota. For now, they are living apart.
Nogle has lived in the area since 2001, and her husband had been there since the 1990s. “We fully intended to live here the rest of our lives and retire here,” she said.
Now, they are waiting to see what happens to the school. Her husband wants to stay on a line that moves freight, not coal, she said. The railroad layoffs in Guernsey were driven by slowed coal traffic out of the Powder River Basin, and a freight line now seems a safer bet.
As a public school teacher in a state where politicians have been cutting budgets and arguing over education funding for almost half a decade, it is not lost on Nogle that both the loss of her husband’s job and the threat to hers originate from the same thing — a struggling fossil fuel industry.
Her understanding of the problem does not make it any easier to see years of work — Nogle has taught at WCCA since 2014 — threatened by a line in a budget document thousands of pages long.
“As a teacher you hate to see it come down to money instead of the kids,” Nogle said. “We see what we do with these kids … and it’s $1 million a year. We do way more than $1 million a year worth of work.”
The program costs the state a little less than $1.5 million a year, according to budget documents. However, that amount is only around 25% of the program’s budget. The other 75% comes from the federal government, meaning each dollar Wyoming invests brings in around $3 from the feds.
Some officials and school employees suggested the politically unpopular cut was designed to spur lawmakers to consider new revenue sources. The governor’s office has pushed back against oft-made suggestions by lawmakers and others that budget decisions are politically motivated.
Those pushbacks, or Gordon’s description of himself as “most reluctant” to eliminate the WCCA, don’t appear to soften officials in Guernsey.
“I’m thinking there could be other cuts in the state if our fair governor thinks he has to make those cuts right now,” Guernsey Mayor Nick Paustian said.
WCCA’s students are part of the fabric of life in Guernsey. Community service is a part of the program. Students build tree and plant boxes around town, clean up the streets and the city park and hang Christmas lights in winter. They help out at dinner events at the local Veterans of Foreign War’s post and participate in “wheelchair dances” at a home for the elderly, according to school staff.
If budget cuts feel acute in Guernsey, it won’t be the last town to face that pinch, House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said.
“Do we want to retract so much in this state that we’re willing to dry up small-town Wyoming?” he asked.
Sommers, who as a JAC member voted against the governor’s WCCA proposal, compared it to broader proposed cuts to public education that could impact teacher and staff salaries — among some small towns’ best jobs.
Governors and lawmakers have been shrinking the state’s budget since 2016, but the scale of 2020’s dire economic impacts means cuts are beginning to land, Sommers and others said.
“This will become personal,” Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association, said. “You will know someone who has lost a job because of cuts or you will feel an impact in the services you receive because of cuts.”
Many programs on the chopping block
While lawmakers protected the academy for now with their December vote, they didn’t act on Gordon’s proposed cuts to programs with similar aims, like residential treatment centers and other services to help children with complex behavioral-health and emotional needs.
Lawmakers also did not tinker for now with a cut to early childhood education and behavioral intervention programs run by the Wyoming Department of Health. Those programs all aim to provide the same outcomes as the WCCA, Simon, the advocate for healthcare and women’s issues with the Wyoming Women’s Action Network, said, and there’s research to prove it, she said.
“There’s all this evidence that supports exactly the things we want as a state; better economic outcomes, more people in the workforce, higher grad rates, lower incarceration rates … all of those are things that JAC brought up [with the WCCA], and all of those are things that early childhood education delivers.”
The WCCA has not studied the return on the investments in its program, according to budget documents. The school is in the process now of surveying graduates, Salazar said.
The WCCA lists a majority female staff on its website. Its male-to-female student ratio is about 80-20, according to Salazar.
But it has a masculine name and a military connection, Simon said, which appeals to a male-dominated legislature. More than that, it’s an easier program to love than one buried in the budget of the DOH or Wyoming Department of Family Services.
“Cowboy Challenge is visible, it’s understandable, it has a great name,” she said. “People can understand why it exists, who it helps and what it does. That sort of visibility works in its favor.”
Deeper than ROI
Nogle and Salazar are confident their program provides a good return on the state’s annual investment. But in recounting successes, they focus on students more than dollar figures. They remember individuals who lost weight and gained confidence under their watch, students who came in high on drugs and graduated as “top cadets.”
Whether because of a lack of distractions, the security of three meals a day, the physical activity, the small class sizes or all of the above, growth happens in the drab building among the drab line of barracks, they say.
“They have to decide who they are, what they want to stand for and where they want to go with their lives,” Nogle said.
They recall the jobs students took after leaving. One graduate from Sheridan detoured to Guernsey on his way home from a Denver job interview, Salazar recalled. He’d nailed the interview and been hired on the spot.
“He just wanted to let us know,” Salazar said. “They associate this building with security and success.”
Loss such association is one more intangible impact of the proposed cut that worries Nogle. If they shut down, she worries not just for future students denied the opportunity, but for past graduates.
“This place isn’t going to be there for them anymore,” she said.