Next year’s election of the Cody school board should be fun to watch, if the chaos that ensued this year is any indication of what’s ahead.

Even though the election may be ripe for some rousing political theater, voters shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that important issues in local schools will ultimately be decided by who controls the school board.

There are lessons to be learned in the aftermath of Park County District No. 6’s blowup over proposed new textbooks, but it’s not clear yet exactly what all the players took home from the confrontation. It’s a fight that was just suddenly dropped, with the hope it can all be cleared up later.

That’s not a good thing, and not the outcome anyone wanted, though the conservatives who complained about the recommended textbooks being too liberal undoubtedly believe they won at least a temporary victory when the whole plan was shelved last month. They may feel emboldened by their “success,” but they shouldn’t consider themselves winners in any way. They selfishly cost students in Cody the opportunity to upgrade their education during the next school year, and they will try to do it again.

Naturally, they will attempt to elect like-minded conservatives to the school board. It’s up to voters to know how each candidate viewed the textbook debacle and what they plan to do to keep it from happening again.

Let’s recap: a committee met to review textbooks and recommend its choices to the school board, which has the final approval on curriculum under Wyoming’s standard of local control of public education. The process was sailing along in May before conservatives in the audience and on the board hijacked it at a seven-hour meeting that divided much of the community.

A few members of the public banded together and filed a total of 42 official complaints about various aspects of the books, based on their overall premise that local educators were going to fill young minds with progressive propaganda at considerable expense to the public. The price tag for the new material was estimated at $300,000.

Surprisingly, before the board met again to consider the complaints, the textbook committee yanked all of its recommendations. No one saw it coming, least of all the board. It was the equivalent of putting up the white flag of surrender before the opponents’ shots came within a mile of their target.

I read every complaint, and I think the textbook committee could have easily, justifiably dismissed nearly every one and stuck to its recommendations. It was the panel’s job to wade through this convoluted, last-minute mess that had been submitted by opponents and determine if it had any merit.

Instead, the members abdicated their responsibility in the hope the confrontation will die down and the district can develop a “process” that makes it harder for just a few people to muck up textbook decisions that had been thoroughly vetted through many months of work.

The committee urged the trustees “to adopt a process for resource adoption that is fair to all concerned and reasonable to implement and also a process the board of trustees will honor and support.” The current set of outdated textbooks is apparently deemed good enough until the adults can all play nicely together.

What kind of message does that send to Cody’s middle school and high school students, as well as parents and taxpayers? Teachers and the board couldn’t reach a decision because some felt too threatened by a few loud, unreasonable critics of their work. Is “run and regroup” supposed to be the solution best for everyone?

School Board Chairman Jake Fulkerson said the controversy was “frustrating for all” and called the district’s textbook policy flawed. “We’ll have the same curriculum, the same resources we’ve had the last three years, and guess what, we seem to be doing OK,” he told the hometown Cody Enterprise. “I have complete confidence that our kids are not going to get hurt. Now, is it ideal? No, it’s not. But it’s a very valid solution to this mess we’re in. Yeah, it’s a mess.”

But because it’s admittedly a mess, it can’t be seriously considered a valid solution. The district effectively folded its tent and allowed a handful of people irrationally upset with its recommendations to get the upper hand. If these few are emboldened by the results, what’s going to happen when the district takes up even more controversial math and science standards?

Trustee Scott Weber set the tone for the marathon meeting in May when he said he wouldn’t vote to spend a dime on “junk science [that] is against community and state standards.”

The standards that the committee recommending the textbooks apparently violated was the philosophy of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  It’s a philosophy ascribed to by many in Wyoming who don’t want to do anything to offend the fossil-fuels industry that pays for the bulk of state government through taxes on its production.

If this pitiful reasoning is allowed, Park County students will be unprepared to meet the challenges they will face competing against better educated students in college and in their careers. The idea that local control is best is an incredibly hollow argument.

As I noted in a May 26 column, the complaints made were a hodgepodge of the type of nonsense Tea Party devotees have claimed in other school districts around the country. Particularly obnoxious was the claim that public education is too busy celebrating multiculturalism, and focuses on minorities instead of the white Christian males who have historically ruled this nation.

The Cody textbook critics’ chief concern was that the much-maligned “Common Core” standards being implemented with the purchase of new textbooks teach that man-caused climate change is “settled science.”

But it is settled science, as all but right-wing idealogues know. More than 97 percent of the world’s leading scientists have established that man’s continued burning of fossil fuels at breakneck speed is endangering the life of our planet and all of its inhabitants. If a conversion to clean energy isn’t accomplished soon, life on earth is in for catastrophic changes. Many scientists think it’s already too late to change the destructive course we’ve been on for decades, but we must try.

I understand many parents are upset with the Common Core standards that have been demonized by conservatives as a brazen, unconstitutional attempt to nationalize public education. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Park County School District No. 6 tried to convey to constituents by publishing its answers to frequently asked questions about Common Core.

Such as: “Did the federal government require states, including Wyoming, to adopt Common Core State Standards?”

Answer: “No. The federal government had no part in the development of the CCSS. It was a state-led effort, and each state can choose to adopt the CCSS or not.”

Ask almost any Common Core opponent, and he or she will deny that answer. But it’s the truth; in no way was the system forced upon Wyoming by the feds. Park County School District No. 6 must have realized that misplaced hatred for the “federal” Common Core could spur people to do exactly what they did in bashing textbooks within the CCSS and getting them delayed, if not outright thrown out.

The district posted its Common Core information on its website in June 2013, which might have given Cody’s textbook opponents a chance to understand how the CCSS was developed and work with local educators on the selections.

If, of course, anybody had bothered to read it, instead of waiting and manufacturing a crisis.

CORRECTION: This column was updated on July 15, 2015 to correct the name of school board trustee Scott Weber. — Ed

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Just in, wy. public media

    As Wyoming lawmakers revamp the state’s school funding model, they are touting data that suggests money spent on schools has paid off when it comes to global competitiveness in science and math.

    That data comes from a study that compared scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress—or NAEP—with those on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—or TIMMS.

    Wyoming typically sits in the middle of the pack among states when it comes to student achievement data. But the study says that Wyoming ranks sixth in the world in science scores and eighth in math scores.

    “And if you look at it statistically, Wyoming is essentially statistically tied for second in the world in science—behind Finland,” says Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, an education policy professor at California State University Sacramento. “So that’s clearly good news for Wyoming. When you make investments in education, it yields results.”

    not quite the doomsday science educational scenario that wyofile seems to be promoting.

    Paul Cook

  2. Or,… the CO2 climagedden hypothesis is purely in its gestation phase, as none of the modeling has proven consistent with reality and so little data has been collected, that nothing can be proven true or false beyond a natural variability. Fortunately, teachers know their primary mission is to impart a love for learning and doing, which will be the true basis for the success of all Wy children. But I think that we can all agree that teachers are much more valuable than wing-nut politics and divisive fear mongering journalists of either party. Good pay, Small classes, every thing else is politics. Wyoming can have good economy and ecology
    for future generations, thanks to teachers.

    Paul Cook

  3. Park County is a symptom of the rest of Wyoming, where 12-year-old science standards are considered better than “newfangled” knowledge that offend some backward-thinking people. They have no concern about what will be facing our undereducated students, once they hit the real world.

    Steen Goddik

  4. Yes his writting is wonderful and needs to be seen. It is interesting in wyoming that junk thinking is an advantage because it asllows one to be able to in denify junk science on sight

    Pattersn Keller

  5. .Junk thinking must be a very handy tool cause it gives one the ability to recognize junk science..

    Patterson Keller

  6. Hello there Kerry and company — thanks for covering this very hot topic here in Park County. If I may, I’d like to set a couple of records straight regarding your comments on the actions of the committee:

    First of all, your lines ” the textbook committee yanked all of its recommendations. No one saw it coming, least of all the board. It was the equivalent of putting up the white flag of surrender before the opponents’ shots came within a mile of their target” is a little off — we HAD talked with members of the board about this, and this came after days / weeks of going back and forth on this quagmire of controversy. Rather than form ANOTHER committee (to oversee another committee, supposedly in charge of textbook adoption), we chose to ask for a better, more streamlined approach to the PROCESS — to put it back on the board in order to prevent this mess from happening in the future (for example, social studies and science). This was NOT meant to be a white flag of surrender — but a small retreat in order for us to regroup and attempt to make the system work better in the future. We are NOT giving up on these resources.

    Your next bit also needs addressed: “I read every complaint, and I think the textbook committee could have easily, justifiably dismissed nearly every one and stuck to its recommendations. It was the panel’s job to wade through this convoluted, last-minute mess that had been submitted by opponents and determine if it had any merit” — if only it were that simple. Naturally, we felt that it was easy to dismiss the ridiculous comments – but the next step, had we continued, was simply to form another committee — chosen by the board — and who knows how long that would have tied up the process???

    Last but not least: “What kind of message does that send to Cody’s middle school and high school students, as well as parents and taxpayers? Teachers and the board couldn’t reach a decision because some felt too threatened by a few loud, unreasonable critics of their work. Is “run and regroup” supposed to be the solution best for everyone?” In this case, it makes great sense. We do not feel threatened by the ‘loud, unreasonable critics’ — and we are not ‘running and regrouping’ — our committee has an obligation to our district to help put the BEST possible resources in front of our students. This is part of our curriculum alignment – all subject areas – K-12, so it’s a big responsibility. We just want to set the precedent for the future so it’s done in a logical, methodical, reasonable manner — and that’s a GREAT message (in my opinion) for the students, parents, and taxpayers.

    Thanks.
    Rick Stonehouse
    Co-Chair of SAC (Subject Area Committee)

    p.s. — our board member is Scott Weber (not Sam)

  7. It doesn’t matter because the kids will get all their education from the internet. And most will go out of state after graduating high school. Just like they always have.

    Etta Place

  8. Yea, verily Kerry . Your considered and comprehensive outside opinion should be required reading in my hometown of Cody . Perhaps the local newspaper of record, now in the hands of a new Editor as of May when he left his job as high school journalism teacher, will oblige and reprint your analyses. You are correct in all aspects.

    I am ashamed of my hometown’s school management presently. This debacle was avoidable altogether, but once it got rolling and the Tea Party peasants stormed the School Board bastille with pitchforks and tar brushes, it became a demonstration of how far America has ” dumbed down” due to the overtness of the Religious Right, the social conservatives, the red shifted Republicans , and aforementoned Tea Party and their ilk — to the extreme detriment to us all.

    You pegged it…the textbook committee utterly caved before the barbarians even made the gate. Were it a Cody High School Biology 101 course, those committee members would be dissected as spineless invertebrates. The reasonable literate pragmatic members of the school board- although a minority thanks to recent convolutions by activist voters – knew all along the process was off the rails. But they allowed the process to proceed to its farcical conclusion , then hit the reset button. We will fire it up again next year and play thru the next cycle of this version of ” Groundhog Day “. Yes, the next school board cycle and election will be worth a case study for the requisite civics and government courses required to get a CHS diploma . If only a large number of Cody adults of the conservative persuasion were required to take those courses, remedially.

    I recieved an outstanding K-12 education in Cody’s public schools, graduating in 1969 with a head full of real knowledge and a hundred doors before me, and windows to view the world. I do not believe that high quality education is achievable in this day and age, due to the dumbing down and denigration of public education by misguided ( or even delusional) conservatives.

    Cody has become a petri dish for studying what went wrong with American K-12 schooling.

    Dewey Vanderhoff