Steve Friess testifies on the school zoning bill at a House committee meeting earlier in the legislative session (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The Wyoming House in its first floor discussion gave initial approval to a much debated bill to strip counties’ zoning authority over private schools.

The 31-24 vote was the first of three the measure faces in the lower chamber. It passed the Senate earlier this legislative session.

Senate File 49 County zoning authority-private schools would enable Steve and Polly Friess to construct a campus for the Jackson Hole Classical Academy as planned in a rural zone south of Jackson. Teton County rules prohibit construction of buildings as large as those planned by the academy. The Friess family went to Cheyenne seeking legislative relief.

Scott Clem

Debate covered everything from constitutional rights of Wyoming students to how much money the state saves by having approximately 100 students enrolled in a private, rather than public, school. Some lawmakers repeated calls to treat private schools the way public ones are treated by freeing them from county siting oversight.

Opponents of the measure failed to defeat it in its first House test. Supporters, including Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan), said the bill is  “fixing a problem.” That problem is Teton County’s strict zoning rules, he and others said.

Calling for parity among schools, Jennings said, “We’re the Equality State.”

Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) discounted criticism that the bill would open the door to unbridled development with schools popping up regardless of counties’ infrastructures needs, plans and wishes. Critics of the bill made those points repeatedly.

“We’re going to have private schools everywhere!” he exclaimed sarcastically. “The humanity! That’s terrifying!”

Rep. Scott Clem (R- Gillette) said the Legislature was dealing with “a county commission that is not working very well with its private partners.

“This story is pretty horrendous,” Clem said of the Friess narrative of Teton County’s refusal to change zoning rules to accommodate the large buildings in the rural zone. “This will fire anybody up.”

County officials dispute aspects of Friess’ account to lawmakers, saying the commission has worked with the school in many cases but reached a limit to the exceptions to planning codes they were willing to grant the school.

Rep. Tim Salazar said the county had put up “egregious barriers” to the Friess plan. But because of lobbying and earlier hearings, lawmakers were not going to be swayed by the House debate, he suggested; “We’ve all made up our minds.”

Teton rep opposes private school bill

Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Teton County) spoke against the bill, citing his years’ of experience on past county planning and county commission boards. He objected to statements that current county officials had run “roughshod” over the Classical Academy and its backers.

“They have said rather derogatory things about duly elected officials,” Schwartz said. In reality, he said, commissioners and planners were “working with zoning regulations they have.”

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Sublette County) supported his “county to the north,” and its commissioners’ zoning decisions. Elected Teton officials are “trying to maintain the character they want,” he said. “It’s inappropriate to do specific legislation for one problem,” he said.

Other opponents said the Legislature was not the proper venue for the Friess family and the Academy to take its grievance.

“This bill seems to infringe on local control,” Rep Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment) said. “This issue should be better resolved at the ballot box, not at the soap box.”

Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) said the academy hasn’t even submitted a full application to the county for its proposed institution yet wants the state to change its laws.

Support in-depth, independent legislative coverage with a tax-deductible donation

Teton County has ruled only on Friess’ proposed changes to zoning rules and hasn’t taken up specific development proposals.

The county has voted in this fashion, these commissioners have put these rules in place, “because that’s what the people in this county wanted,” he said. “If it’s creating special legislation, it sends a dangerous precedent,” he said.

That precedent would be “if you’ve got enough money [you can say] I want this exact law changed for me,” Brown told colleagues.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. From the bill: “No zoning resolution or plan shall regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings and structures and the use, condition of use or occupancy of a private school as defined in W.S. 21‑4‑101(a)(iii) in any manner different from a public school.” https://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2019/SF0049

    This is about establishing a level playing field in keeping with the Wyoming Constitution. In the declaration of rights, article 1 section 23 says: “The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition.” These private schools aren’t asking for private funds, they just want to be on the same level playing field as public schools in their right to exist and offer the Wyomingites school choice.

  2. Just another example of “Home Rule” being overruled by legislative action requested by a very wealthy individual who doesn’t like to hear the word “No”. This is exactly the type of legislative action that our legislators accuse the Federal government of taking. This definitely starts a slippery slope of additional State interference with local rulings, and don’t think that other wealthy individuals with their own agenda(s) aren’t watching this.

  3. I am pretty sick of the private school advocates as it is a stalking horse to destroy the Common Good that all of our children should have a high quality PUBLIC education. There is absolutely NO DATA that indicates that private charter schools provide high quality education that would apply to all children, equally. It is funny that we study Medicaid Expansion to death, but never really studied what a great education and teacher workforce looks like. I would like to argue we actually have an excellent model for evaluating education and its costs by looking at our own history of providing education and how it was funded and whom taught our children in the past.

    I would argue that the decline in education in America began in the late 1970s due to two things – teachers, primarily women, were underpaid, over educated women that were able to expand their horizons and bank accounts after they were freed to work in any industry starting in the late 1960s. The other thing that drove an excellent education in my time was the Vietnam War as many men chose the draft deferment teach, at a much lower salary than they could have earned without the threat of going to war in southeast Asia. As a matter of fact, the only reason the USA raised teacher pay in the 1960s is because we forced men, the primary bread winners into this job, that was former home to overeducated underpaid women. The Catholics even had a better deal, as nuns were slaves that had no downstream costs, because they could never birth children.

    Then when the war was over and the capitalists could hire educated women into other male dominated jobs, society did not elevate teacher pay to account for the historic inequality in paying teachers, hence a decline in the quality of teachers and their ability to live and interact with more highly paid corporate drones.

    I was lucky to be educated by wonderful underpaid women and men that were avoiding the stupid Vietnam war by taking an education deferment.

    Teaching cannot be mechanized like the auto industry, so it is going to cost more over time, if we want quality educators. I can flat guarantee that private charter schools, especially religious based models, will not be the solution, since we really have not understood the problem.

    If people care about their children, they would support public schools, but alas we are being lied to because we have not looked at history.

    1. FYI: It is not a charter school and the private school doesn’t prevent any child from getting a quality education. It is privately funded.

  4. It’s honestly pathetic to watch the Freiss family and the legislators in their pocket whine and cry and play victim about this as if the Teton County commission was targeting this school and somehow moving the goalposts and coming up with arbitrary, ad hoc rules and decisions for the entire purpose of blocking the school, when the reality is that the Commission made TWO decisions regarding the school about rules that have been in place and upheld for years prior to the school even being proposed.

    The first decision was to almost unanimously (only one hold-out) ALLOW and APPROVE an exception to existing zoning restrictions to allow them to build and operate the school in the rural zone at all. The second was to deny (again, nearly unanimously with only one hold-out) their request to change other zoning restrictions for everyone in the county by TRIPLING the allowed square footage of buildings in rural zones (from 10,000 sq. ft. to 30,000 sq. ft) just so the Freiss’s could add an extra 5,000 sq. ft. to the gymnasium they wanted as part of their ‘school.’

    That’s it. Those were the actions they took. They tried TWO things, one was approved, giving them the green light to build the school. The other was far too high of a demand that would completely undermine the whole purpose and objective of the zoning restrictions that the people in Teton County put in place years prior for the sake of allowing the Freiss family to add a large gymnasium to that school (A school which again, they are currently still allowed to build, just not with a 15,000 sq. ft. Gymnasium).

    Upon the denial of that second proposal, Freiss went straight to his sycophants in the legislature to whine and cry about how ‘unfair’ it is that they have to play by the rules that everybody else on the playground has to play by, and how unfair and awful the Teton County commissioners were, and how they got juked and stonewalled at every turn, how we need to support ‘equality’ by making sure a mulitmillionaire can build a ritzy private school that charges an annual rate of tuition and fees that outmatch every single college in the state , and “OH the CHILDREN! THINK OF THE CHILDREN! They will be forever without a school, how awful! How could they do that to the Children?!” The legislature really ought to step in and completely upend and seize local authority over zoning issues away from every county in the state for the sake of “equality, fairness, and for the children!”

    And thus the Freiss family can use their money to get their way and do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want at the expense of everybody else in the state. Sad.

  5. Dear Wyoming Republican Legislator—

    When is local control … not ?

    Answer carefully. This is about a heckuva lot more than a one-off parochial school in a place that actually enforces it’s own long-established community standards. It might be about overreach by state government … the same abomination you accuse the federal government of afflicting Wyoming with , when it suits you.

    1. They are also accusing the Teton County Commission of ‘overreach’ (by upholding already-existing zoning rules) in order to justify their own overreach. It’s unreal how silly, dishonest, and disingenuous these legislators have been about this issue.

  6. Rep. Clem; “a county Commission that is not working very well with its private partners.” If that be true, it should be taken care of in the Teton County voting booths, not by the Legislature.