Ed: This story has been updated to include responses received from Brian Schroeder.
Three candidates have announced their campaigns for Superintendent of Public Instruction, one of five statewide elected positions in Wyoming.
Thomas Kelly, Brian Schroeder and Megan Degenfelder are all running as Republicans. The primary election will take place on August 16th.
Thomas Kelly, Sheridan-based chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University, is the latest to announce his bid for the seat. Kelly was one of three finalists selected by the Wyoming GOP to complete former superintendent Jillian Balow’s term, who resigned to take a similar, unelected position in Virginia.
Kelly says he knew he’d run for the position just a few days after Gov. Mark Gordon passed him over. “I immediately started getting phone calls from people who were from the state party asking me to primary the governor,” Kelly said. But he wasn’t interested in becoming governor, plus the state’s chief executive position requires five years of Wyoming residency. Kelly moved to the state in 2019.
He has five children currently enrolled in Wyoming’s public schools, which he says makes him particularly cognizant of education issues. Kelly also notes that as head of a college department, he has experience managing and leading.
Several contentious legislative topics in 2022 were education related — from discussions about transgender athletes to critical race theory — making the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction of particular statewide interest.
The three candidates all have experience of some sort in education, and all have stressed the importance of parent involvement. The next superintendent will have to deal with finding long term funding sources, responding to teacher burnout and addressing student mental health.
A head start
Brian Schroeder, a former private Christian school administrator, is also running. Schroeder was appointed to the position by Gov. Mark Gordon in Jan. 2022, making him a likely front runner.
Wyoming has a history of appointees later winning elections.
In 2018 former Gov. Matt Mead selected Ed Buchanan to temporarily fill the Wyoming Secretary of State position — he later ran a successful campaign and won the election.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was appointed to serve the balance of Sen. Craig Thomas’s term following Thomas’s death in 2007. Barrasso was elected to the seat in 2008 and has been re-elected twice.
Schroeder noted in his cover letter for the position, “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.”
Megan Degenfelder announced her bid for the superintendent position in early April. Degenfelder served as Chief Policy Officer at the Wyoming Department of Education under Balow, before taking a position in the oil and gas industry.
In her role as government regulatory affairs manager, she says she works “every day to fight the federal government and to fight back against harmful regulations and decision making that can negatively hurt our oil and gas industry.”
Degenfelder says the main focus of her campaign is increasing parent involvement in schools, improving literacy rates and strengthening private industry ties to education. “There’s still so much work to do and it’s really just going to take breaking down those barriers, making sure that our industry leaders have access to our education system,” Degenfelder says.
What the job entails
“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, previously told WyoFile.
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, and the State Loan and Investment Board will likely begin authorizing charter schools this summer when 2021 legislation takes effect.
WyoFile asked the three candidates for their positions on various topics. Schroeder did not respond by the time of publication.
On mental health problems in schools (Wyoming has the highest death by suicide rate in the nation)
- “That issue is not isolated to the public school system,” Kelly said. “It’s really not the government’s job to take care of everyone’s mental health, but the state, the schools, the districts can still be compassionate, aware and flexible of the changing needs.”
- “I think that each individual community is going to have different needs and different responses to those needs,” Degenfelder said. “And so, for me, it’s really bridging the gap between the state and our resources that we have available, and those local school districts and those local communities.”
- “Adolescence is a time in life when kids struggle with the usual developmental issues, so we must be careful not to size up every struggle as a mental health issue,” wrote Shroeder in an email to WyoFile. “But for those that are, the schools should refer, refer, refer. By contracting with local mental health centers, the schools can do what they do best, teach our kids. Our schools should not be turned into therapy clinics and teachers should not have to be trained as counselors.”
On teacher shortages and burnout
- “One of the biggest factors in teacher burnout is having a top-heavy administration in the school district,” Kelly said. Bureaucratic duties and busy work can weigh teachers down, he says, plus inflation and cost of living expenses are becoming a bigger problem in Wyoming. “An increase in compensation for teachers is very doable,” Kelly said. “Of course, the money’s there. There is plenty of fat to trim in the bureaucracy and the administration of the school districts.”
- Ensuring that funds are well spent, and that teachers have resources to grow will be key to addressing teacher burnout, Degenfelder said. “I think working on individual levels with our school districts is the best way to accomplish that.”
- “In terms of the teachers, we need to elevate them highly, propagate them strategically and proactively (one way is through a Teacher Apprenticeship Program) and compensate them adequately,” Schroeder wrote. “They have the hardest job on earth (next to parenting), so we have to take good care of our teachers, which involves more than just paying them well of course, but involves at least that.”
On school choice
- “School choice is important to foster innovation,” Kelly said. While he’s open to the idea of voucher programs he is concerned about the oversight and control of curriculum that state or federal dollars might bring to private institutions. “What some call accountability others would call government intrusion.”
- “We have barely scratched the surface here in Wyoming when it comes to school choice,” Degenfelder said. “We can start, you know, looking at the voucher system. I’m extremely supportive of leaving no stone unturned when it comes to school choice.”
- “Competition and the free market system is the hallmark of the American system.” Schroeder wrote. “Do I feel like this could wreck or hurt the public schools in the area? Not if they’re good, and the public schools that I’ve visited are very, very good. So I don’t think charter schools would be any threat to them.”