Students, parents and staff gathered in the playground at Verda James Elementary School in Casper for the first day of school on Sept. 1, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Following a process challenged by legal maneuverings and allegations of unconstitutionality, Gov. Mark Gordon appointed Brian Schroeder as the state’s superintendent of public instruction on Thursday. Schroeder will hold the office, recently vacated by Jillian Balow, until 2023, when voters will once again have the chance to elect someone to the position.

All of the contention and rhetoric surrounding the replacement of Balow begs the question: Just how much political clout does Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction — one of five statewide elected positions, along with governor, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state — actually possess?

An examination of the job description turns up a wide range of duties — from establishing guidelines for the disposal of toxic chemicals to tracking special education programs.

“The state superintendent really has the ability to impact everything from the day-to-day operations of the departments, to policy, to the management of revenue for the future of school children,” Brian Farmer, director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said. 

But influence is the superintendent’s greatest power, according to Farmer: He or she can either help Wyoming’s various education agencies run smoothly, or foster an environment of conflict. 

Shared power

Kari Eakins became  interim superintendent when Balow resigned on Jan. 16 to take a similar position in Virginia, where the role is always appointed. Not all states elect their superintendent, Eakins said, but having the people choose the head of the education department forces the superintendent to be accountable to the voters, something Eakins sees as a strength.

Former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow resigned Jan. 16 to take a similar position in Virginia. (Wyoming Department of Education)

A large part of the Wyoming superintendent’s time is spent driving across the state visiting school districts. In her brief stint as interim superintendent, Eakins drove from her home in Cheyenne to Casper for a state board meeting and then two days later to Lander for a principal’s conference. 

“It is a lot of miles. But you’re responsible to the people, so you got to get out there and meet with them,” Eakins said.

When explaining the superintendent job, Eakins frequently uses the metaphor of an octopus on roller skates. “There’s a lot of different arms, there’s a lot of action, but if you don’t have that unified vision, you’re not going to be able to get to where you want to go,” she said. 

There isn’t much the holder of the position can do without relying on others, she said, and when making many decisions the superintendent must consult with either the governor, state board of education or legislature. For example, he or she can appoint members to the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board, but it’s a power shared with the governor. 

The superintendent can “kind of guide policy and support districts,” Farmer said. “If a superintendent chooses not to engage in that role, if they’re just going to be entirely compliance oriented, that will lead to a negative culture within the department.” Districts could view the superintendent as a bureaucratic stumbling block rather than as a partner, he said. 

Aside from helming the Department of Education, the superintendent of public instruction also sits on the State Board of Land Commissioners, the State Board of Education, the State Loan and Investment Board and the State Building Commission. The State Board of Land Commissioners manages state trust lands, which must be used to maximize revenue to support schools. 

The superintendent is also a non-voting member on the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees, the Wyoming Community College Commission and the School Facilities Commission. 

History

The office of superintendent of public instruction has a history of controversy in Wyoming. In 2013 the legislature tried to strip former superintendent Cindy Hill of her powers after Hill was accused of misappropriating federal education funds, creating a toxic work environment and sexual harrasment. 

The legislature passed Senate File 104 in an attempt to strip Hill of many duties and transfer them to an appointed director. The state’s Supreme Court ultimately deemed the move unconstitutional.

Marti Halverson, one of the finalists for the position and a former Wyoming representative, noted in her cover letter that she voted against Senate File 104 because she believed it to be unconstitutional. 

“When an individual has been challenging, the Legislature has responded to that by limiting the power of the state superintendent,” Farmer said. “But when the individual that’s held the office has shown a partnership, then the Legislature has been willing to allow them to exercise authority.”

The finalists

On Jan. 22 the Wyoming GOP selected three candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. The applicants included: 

  • Schroeder, head of Veritas Academy, a private Christian school in Cody whose mission statement is “to assist each student in developing a Biblical world view by acknowledging that God is the Author of all knowledge and wisdom.” Schroeder majored in theology and speech and pastoral studies and holds a master’s in counseling. He moved to Wyoming in 2020, according to the resume submitted for the position. In his cover letter, he wrote the “local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society.” In a column, he wrote the U.S. has become divided due to multiculturalism and “it’s (sic) latest offspring, Critical Race Theory.” Schroeder did not respond to multiple interview requests. 
Brian Schroeder (Screengrab/Veritas Academy)
  • Marti Halverson, a former Republican Wyoming representative who noted in her application that she is “not an ‘educator.” Originally Halverson “did not consider running,” she told WyoFile. “But because I am known in Republican circles around the state for my conservative approach to policy, many people called and encouraged me to run.” Statewide test scores were a top area of concern for her, she said, noting “there’s something wrong there.”
  • Thomas Kelly, chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University, a for-profit online university that reached a settlement with the state of Massuchesetts in 2018 for engaging in “predatory enrollment tactics.” Kelly said Republicans in the Sheridan area asked him to run, but because he is relatively new to the state he was an unknown entity to the Central Committee. “In general, I would like to be able to be remembered as the person who was able to keep the Wyoming schools on secure financial footing, without sticking it to the taxpayers,” he said.

Gov. Mark Gordon interviewed the three candidates Tuesday. The appointment process was disrupted by a legal challenge, however. A lawsuit filed that day by 16 plaintiffs from various political backgrounds alleged the process used by the GOP Central Committee to choose the three candidates was unconstitutional. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the process of apportioning three votes to each county violated the federal and state constitution rule of “one person-one vote.” U.S. District Court Judge Skavdahl ordered the governor to halt his final decision for state superintendent until Thursday at noon, but ultimately denied the motion.

In the Thursday press release announcing Schroeder’s appointment, Gordon said “Brian demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that parents are intricately involved in their children’s education, just as it should be.”

After his interview, Kelly said the governor asked how he’d like to be remembered as superintendent, and he felt that Gordon was interested in a candidate who wasn’t using the position as a stepping stone to a higher office, a sentiment he agreed with. Halverson wouldn’t discuss the specifics of her meeting, but said, “my interview with the governor was frank and friendly.”

Sofia Jeremias

Sofia Jeremias reports on healthcare, education and the economy in Wyoming. She received her master's degree from the Columbia Journalism School and previously reported on the West for Deseret News.

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  1. It is good to see constructive discourse here on Wyofile regarding a difficult conversation for two very disparate schools of thought. It is important to point out that while I have strong faith as a Christian, I have been a victim of some serious attempts at gaslighting in my day. The trust issues I exemplify apply everywhere. No one is above reproach, and a manmade religion is no exception. I am a reader of history who has noted that all historians carry bias into their work. I can tell the bias of an author within a few pages these days, and I weigh the balance of the work in that context. I do the same with current journalism, which is always biased in every single article. No exceptions. We are not computers.
    The best teachers try to bring a sense of reality to the subject so the students can think about the topic and realize that propaganda cuts both ways and no one is being honest all the time. History is written by the winners, it is often said. Very True. History itself is a flow of human actions that do not happen in a vacuum.
    Things lead to other things. Conspiracies and hoaxes abound. Heroes in one era are exposed as schemers in another. Who caused World War 1? Was it all Germany’s fault? The answer may surprise you.
    I am enjoying learning about our history here in Wyoming, and I hope we can make history in positive ways for all parties. Let us do our best to make this time the best it can be. There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made. The Federal Government has always been a problem for this Union and frankly we at a local level need to make sure it is kept in check. Just ask the Native Americans what happens when you trust the Feds to keep their word. The track record is piss poor. We may not agree on how to get where we need to go, but the key to success is to agree on the goal and then begin the work of mapping out the best route of travel. Let your conscience be the guide, but realize that people giving you directions can be damned fools or crooked highwaymen with buddies around the bend. The hardest thing is admitting that not everyone means well, and recognizing that the ones who do just may not be the ones you originally trusted.

  2. I’m struggling to understand how a man who has never been in PUBLIC education, and only recently moved to WY (2020), is qualified to be the head of public education.

  3. I do not know whether my first comment will make it through as it got a little acerbic toward the end as I am wont to do. However if it does make it through, Bob Schroeder might agree with some of my analysis as he rightly proclaims that teachers do not get enough respect or pay in society.

    I read every post on the Veritas website and I must say the stories he crafts are indicative that he believes in education, has good story telling skills and is absolutely certain, while nuanced in delivery, that christian teachings result in a critical thinker and generally a better person.

    He will be more formidable in the role than I previously intuited and the media has really limited skills to take on some of his false notions. When reading each one of his posts, there are always key sentences that are a “tell” and if one does not have requisite education or life knowledge to identify these key sentences and then parse them into the correct context; a person like this will bamboozle the majority.

    A good educator should encourage debate and I wonder if he would be willing to discuss some of his key beliefs that range from how the Bible is interpreted to where he got the quotes from Ed Koch about multiculturalism? When I search for these quotes I end up finding what Bob said about Ed, but not one link that supports that Ed actually said it. Using Ed Koch as a cudgel is interesting and if I can find this so called statement by Ed, it would be beneficial to explore the context as New York mayors tell some interesting stories about America.

    I also support Bob’s notion that the Bible helps create critical thinkers as I studied it as hard as I did other subjects and came to the conclusion that the embellished oral history of the Jewish people is not a religious text. I would posit if Bob continues his journey he too will arrive at this conclusion.

  4. Having received a liberal education (inc history) from UW, I stand against Schroeder’s appointment as state superintendent of public instruction. Two of the three candidates had ties to private & religious education. The repubs’ attempts to limit education to what they ideologically believe is misguided. We need a strong public education system, untainted by politics and religion.

  5. So a candidate has been selected with strong beliefs in Christianity and its role in education to be in charge of a public school system for the entire state and is promising for parents to be “intricately involved” in the education process. Mind you 99.9% of the parents, like the new superintendent, also know next to nothing about public education. Do we want our children to be actually educated or just to have Christian based beliefs and world views? I’m not a Christian and never will be, but I would like for my son to be educated enough from his K-12 public education to make his own decisions about his religious views and everything else. Mr. Schroeder might prove to be a great superintendent, but his statements about education would certainly lead me to believe otherwise. I get that religion has a significant role in some people’s lives and it really is great that it can have such a positive role for some people, but it has no place in public governance and public education period. Not all members of our society practice religion of any kind, let alone Christianity.

  6. Mr. Schroeder has been appointed. I just read the short article linked in the paragraph above. As a student of history, and a witness to what happens when you let the left mangle the education process, I’m proud of the governor. Good call.

    1. I wish Mr. Schroeder well, and surely hope he heeds the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “[t]he First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state,” and that “[t]hat wall must be kept high and impregnable.”

      1. I happen to agree with you. That said, an intelligent student of history who happens to be a Christian is a bulwark against religious intolerance. Marxism is a political religion that has zero tolerance for Christians or independent thinkers. Islam is the same. Nazism is in the same group of intolerant beliefs, and went after Jehovah’s Witnesses before they ever went after Jews. The left loves to create a false narrative, but the First Amendment was written by a diverse group that included a variety of Christian sub groups who faced intolerance and corruption from many sides and the threat of Muslim pirates and slave traders on the high seas. You will not see a Christian intentionally go into a business owned by a gay person and demand they create a product that goes against their beliefs. It simply won’t happen. The issue with books in libraries was created by activists on both ends of the spectrum. It will burn itself out as over reactive parents realize that kids have to make up their own minds about what they read. In the end, if you did a good job at home your kids will judge content for themselves. The superintendent is not the teacher. It is their job to give that teacher the tools to teach facts and critical thinking. If the teacher belittles faith out of a lack of tolerance, the parents should take that matter to the board.

        1. For several years I was responsible for selecting titles at a small cinema in a Wyoming town. The only rude phone calls I received demanding certain titles show or not show came from individuals claiming to be Christians.

          My experience is that religious groups, including fanatical Christians, often make damaging demands that others believe the way they do “or else”.

          I’m 51 and on most days it seems like I’ve met more people hurt, and even traumatized, by organized christian doctrine than I’ve met who’ve been helped. Also, imo, some of the worst parts of public K12 are holdovers from paternalistic christian doctrine.

          And, of course, we’re only here talking about this because Christians used their god as a cudgel against the people who lived here before us.

          I also believe the bible exists *exactly* and *only* to foster conversation; it is a book of conflicts and questions, not answers. What so many do with it is self-serving and shameful.

          But that’s my experience. Your mileage may vary.

          1. Wow. Heavy. I have experienced some similar situations in churches and 12 step programs. Nuts do what nuts do. That is why I belong to no church and refuse to buy into any cult of personality. My sympathies to anyone who has been oppressed by the devout wierdos. To this day I respect my friends who are devout, but I have seen the strange group dynamics of organized religion and I reject it as a symptom of weakness and corruption. You will never see me in a cult. God’s word is found in many places. My church is the quiet forest.

          2. I should probably make clear my thinking and the connection to education, since that’s what this wyofile story is about.
            Given the divisive state of our state and union, I sincerely hope the Governor’s selection doesn’t promote what I see as a kind of christian bullying we’re seeing in proposed k12 legislation in Oklahoma.
            What I don’t want to see is, a generation from now, even more disparate understandings and acceptance of how the physical world works.
            Students in K12 schools in Wyoming should be encouraged to explore ideas, examine their sources, and, always, question power.

    2. The left mangled the education process? Always projection from those backing the business class.

      It is clear that America was taught by overeducated and underpaid indentured servants for most of our history. Just look at the last 50 years and it is easy to figure out what happened to public education. Once women could take any job, which just started around the mid 1970s, teacher pay was not elevated to keep this formerly conscripted labor in the workforce. In addition, overeducated and underpaid males stopped joining the teaching ranks about this time as draft deferments for college educated males that wanted to avoid the Vietnam War ended.

      So what did the Business Class do when these indentured servants left the workforce? Instead of recognizing that to get the best teachers, they would have to pay more taxes, they did what they always do, they sell the public lies. This business class said the words Free Markets and bashed Unions as the cause of public education woes. All of this was occurring as religion was losing the battle of hearts and minds.

      The business class enlisted evangelical christians to do their bidding as they had a common goal in killing off public education as ignorance is the key to belief.

      It worked, the business class knew they could siphon off the educated from other countries and they continued to harness their new Pinkertons to kill off all types of programs that would benefit all Americans.

      The left did not mangle education but what they did not have was a bullhorn like right wing radio to counter the lies being propagated and swallowed up by those that embrace paying taxes for war equipment but not to educate our youth.

      1. This level of “just plain wrong” deserves a reply. Reagan was right when he said the left knows alot, but most of what they know is wrong. “Business Class”?? What does that even mean? More legroom on the airplane? An extra bag of smoked almonds?
        Education was private until the turn of the last century. Towns had the one room schoolhouse followed by prep schools and private universities. Teachers were hired by the community based on ability. Books and tests were much harder than they are today. Most leftist teachers today would not be able to test at grade level, much less teach. Literacy rates were much higher and the media was broken into thousands of individual publishers and writers of 10 cent novels. Education was found out in the world and was readily available to all based on ability and eagerness to learn. The news was written from the bottom up and had some resemblance to actual events, unlike today’s top-down behemoth.
        The wealthy class (many of whom descended from Democrat slaveowners and were well above what poorly educated people might call the Business Class) was in the background working through the Fabian Society and secret lodges to promote socialism and communism because capitalism was creating prosperity for too many people and the wealthy always fear the middle class. It is the middle class that topples evil oligarchies. Capitalism is based on Free Will and Free Association and encourages independent thinking and invention. These are Christian Virtues. That is why poorly educated people and the wealthy hate them.
        The idea of a state-run educational model was taken from Imperial Germany. Kindergarten is a German word. The warmongering thought process came directly out of wealthy leftist thirst for power on Wall Street and in London. The wealthy class got feckless Woodrow Wilson to give us the Federal Reserve and the IRS as a Christmas Present in 1913. Merry Christmas you peasants! Here’s a World War to rid us of too many useless eaters! Germany was given a central bank at the same time, because without access to borrowed funds on both sides the war could not take place.
        Today you have a feckless fool in DC who is trying to start wars that conservatives are against. Democrats are in favor of them, just as Democrats don’t want schools open and have driven literacy rates into the toilet wherever they have a presence in the classroom. So now the warmongers are rubbing their greedy hands together. The schools are failing, as planned. Soldiers don’t need to be smart, just obedient. Wear your mask, peasant! Get in line! March! Pathetic. Just pathetic.