Sen. Chris Rothfuss makes a point to Steve Friess during a conversation in the Senate gallery on Wednesday. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

JACKSON — Teton County’s school superintendent joined a statewide debate Wednesday, suggesting to lawmakers that a private school should meet state and federal standards if it is to enjoy the same zoning independence afforded public schools.

The Wyoming Senate is considering Senate File 49 — County zoning authority-private schools that would exempt some private schools from local zoning laws. The move would grant private schools zoning independence similar to that afforded to public schools.

The Senate Education Committee, with one abstention, unanimously recommended approval of the bill Wednesday with an amendment saying such schools should meet state construction standards for public schools.

Teton County Schools Superintendent Gillian Chapman wrote lawmakers and other officials Monday in response to inquiries about the district’s position on the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, her letter said. The private nonprofit school seeks to build a campus in a rural zone where its plans for two large buildings are not allowed under Teton County regulations.

Chapman wrote that if the private school is to enjoy the same zoning independence as public schools, “it would seem important that they follow all state and federal requirements to be considered as a school and not pick and choose which statutes will or won’t be followed.  

“Their teachers do not have to follow the same certification and licensing requirements,” she wrote. “They can choose which students to accept or deny for admittance. They choose their curriculum and they do not take state assessments. They do not follow state or federal requirements for schools.”

Friess testifies to senators

The son and daughter-in-law of unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and GOP mega-donor Foster Friess launched the Jackson Hole Classical Academy. Foster Friess has said through an aide that his “platform and influence” would increase chances of the anti-zoning bill passing.

Steve and Polly Friess are proposing the school’s expansion in the rural zone where Teton County years ago placed restrictions on building sizes. The school now serves approximately 100 students — a larger campus could educate more than 200.

Steve Friess lobbied the education committee Wednesday, testifying that the county regulations were “a burden on private religious schools.” He said that after resolving one county requirement, another obstacle would arise.

“The bar just got raised higher and higher,” he told the committee.

Former Teton County Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb has rejected that assertion, saying the only goalposts the county has moved have made it easier for the school to be approved.

Teton County rules create “grave inequities between how a public school is treated and how a private school is treated,” Steve Friess said. The academy would not seek to expand or become a charter school under the state public school umbrella because of a religious component, he said.

“State dollars can’t go to a religious institution,” he told lawmakers. “We say the Lord’s Prayer every day. We say prayers before meals.”

He touted the rigor of the institution saying a kindergarten student boasted of checkmating a father in chess, that Latin is taught in second grade, that transferring students sometimes have to drop back a grade to catch up.

Only through the bill would the academy be able to immediately put up modular units this year while construction begins on the actual campus, he said. “I do not see a path forward if we do not have an exemption,” he said.

The existing school building must be vacated because an adjoining church wants it “for their own purposes,” he told lawmakers. Twenty-two months of negotiations could not break that deadlock, he said.

Several Teton County residents who attended the committee meeting in Cheyenne said the bill imposes an unfunded mandate on local governments to serve an institution removed from core development areas. The amendment proposed Wednesday cures none of the bill’s problems, they said.

Len Carlman said in a telephone interview that lawmakers are trying to patch a roof when a foundation is crumbling. Likening the bill to a structure, he said “this building is not habitable, it needs to be condemned.”

Another Teton County critic who spoke to the committee, Glen Esnard, said in a telephone interview that the legislation gives undue authority to a private school.

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“This law, even as amended, gives private schools greater latitude to build where and what and when they want with virtually zero oversight,” he said. “That’s a power that no other private enterprise in this state has.”

Sen. Mike Gierau, (D-Jackson) has said he would be a co-sponsor of the legislation.

WyoFile did not immediately receive a response from a classical academy spokeswoman regarding questions raised by superintendent Chapman. But in an interview with WyoFile, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) addressed some of the issues.

“We have zoning laws … and that is a set of restrictions that precludes a private school in this instance from doing something that a public school could do,” he said.

He called zoning laws that are stricter for private schools than public ones “an equal-protection issue regarding the Constitution’s guarantee for education.

“Freedom and equity is what we’re protecting,” he said.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said of the difference between control of teacher certification compared to control of zoning requirements.

“We don’t zone teachers. We zone buildings.”

Andrew Graham contributed to this story.

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)...

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  1. No one should be able to buy exemption from local government rules that everyone else complies with. This idea of providing special representation to one wealthy individual is pathetic and dangerous. If Friess wants to live in Wyoming to save on his tax bill, then he can abide by the rules that everyone else abides by or take his wealth and go home. We don;t need people coming in here and using their vast wealth to bend legislators to his will.

    1. Linda Anderson:

      There is nothing I dislike more than seeing those with power and money have such easy access to the hearts and minds of elected leaders. But it is what it is in the real world: here and around the world.

      “No one should be able to buy exemption from local government rules”…AND …. “using their vast wealth to bend legislators to his will.”

      I would say that neither side is buying anything from the local or state government. It could be said that the both sides of the issue are trying to buy a win in advertising and newspaper coverage. The opponents easily outspent supporters of the bill on local newspaper ads, and they have more collective wealth than the bill’s supporters. Both sides certainly lobbied state legislators. And, as is always the case, some people may have easier access to our legislators, or support for specific issues. This issue is between two wealthy parties and it started with a local government that favors the wealthy, almost without exception on such issues.

      “This idea of providing special representation to one wealthy individual is pathetic and dangerous.”

      I don’t know how you redress an injustice without asking. Any person or group may ask their elected representatives to address a perceived injustice or improve a statute if they choose to do so. There is nothing pathetic and dangerous about it. You are free to contact them too: https://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislators

      The idea is to level the playing field for public and private schools in regards to land development. The bill applies to any and all schools in the state. And support of private schools hardly seems unjust or unwise.

      When local land-use rules allow for the development of a school on a parcel of land but prevent any private school from building all the normal features of most schools on that parcel, then there is indeed something wrong with this picture, especially if public schools face no such obstacle on the same parcel of land.

      It just so happens that wealthy people are involved. It usually takes wealth to start a private school be it a Teton Science Schools, or a JHCA, etc. That doesn’t make its supporters or their intentions evil. The school has plenty of local support and it is fighting to stay operational which any school would do.

  2. This is not a debate over the value of the Classical Academy, or of private and faith-based schools in general.
    It is a matter of respecting local control of land use regulations, which are written to support a range of values important to the citizens within each county. These decisions need to be hashed out within each community, not in the state legislature.

  3. What rules should they follow, exactly?

    Until the state’s taxpayers want to fund private schools, there is no reason to impose the worst aspects of public education’s regulations/policies/laws onto private schools.

    Does Chapman think that private schools provide a free education to any and all students?

    Does Chapman think they should have a curriculum driven by local politics?

    Does Chapman think they should bus students all over the state to play football?

    Does Chapman think they should should focus on a secular education?

    Does Chapman think that private schools (like the Teton Science Schools, the JHCA, or any Catholic school in the nation) are harming students by being private non-profits that don’t have the same constraints of public schools?

    According to an article in MarketWatch, 94 of the top 100 Ivy League feeder schools were private. Despite our vast wealth and resources, Hispanic students are, on average, academically 2.9 grades behind White students in the Teton County School District..

    Please explain.

  4. I know the Wyoming Senate is expected to be a deliberate body. Let’s see what happens as the bill is “rushed” through to the Wyoming House. This will be a very telling 3rd reading vote.

    Pete Jorgensen

  5. Didn’t Journeys School in Jackson have the same issues with zoning and got them approved? This seems fishy and not fair. Who would not support a new school being built? Especially one that already has a bunch of students. I’m glad they are taking this to Cheyenne. Teton County has so many hypocrites.

  6. Terrible that Gillian Chapman does not support the school JHCA. I wonder if it’s because she wants the school to close so it improves the test scores if all of the kids go to her public schools which are struggling terribly in town.