It’s no surprise that the Wyoming Republican Party’s leaders used an inherently unconstitutional process to select three nominees to be the state’s new schools chief.

Opinion

It’s the only way the state GOP’s Central Committee could be certain former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is replaced by someone from the extreme-right, which now fully controls the party.

It was heartening to see nearly a dozen Wyoming Republican, Democratic and independent voters have promised to file a lawsuit Tuesday morning to try to prevent Gov. Mark Gordon from using a tainted slate of nominees. Now, a federal judge will decide whether the party violated United States and Wyoming Constitutional provisions that such actions strictly follow “one-person, one-vote” principles.

Balow, who had another year to complete in her second term in office, left for the greener pastures of Virginia to head that state’s Education Department. Her unexpected move has shaken Wyoming politics to its core.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with the party’s three nominees. The GOP selected Marti Halverson, a former state lawmaker with no experience as an educator; Brian Schroeder, head of Cody’s Veritas Academy, a private Christian school; and Thomas Kelly, chair of the Political and Military Department at American Military University, an online college.

To narrow the field of 12 candidates down to this far-right trio, the central committee gave votes to three members from each of the state’s 23 counties — one vote for each county’s party chair, state committeeman and state committeewoman.

It’s a process that’s been used before, most recently in 2018 to fill the unexpired term of former Secretary of State Ed Murray, who resigned after facing allegations of sexual misconduct. The state Republican Central Committee forwarded a list of three nominees to then-Gov. Matt Mead, who chose Ed Buchanan.

No one formally objected at that time. But former House Speaker Tom Lubnau, a Gillette Republican, sent a letter to the committee last Thursday, urging it to select three nominees using a process that allocates votes based on each county’s population.

A system that gives the same number of votes to each county, Lubnau maintained, disenfranchises voters in more populated counties and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. and Wyoming Constitutions.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think it’s an excellent argument. Why on Earth should Laramie County, with more than 100,000 residents, have the same number of votes as Niobrara County, which has less than 2,500?

And why should a mere 69 members of any political party be allowed to determine the candidates to replace a state official who was elected by all Wyoming voters? 

The Equality State should handle vacancies for state elected officials the same way it does for congressional offices, by holding a special election.

Party officials far to the right of rank-and-file Republicans have snatched the reins of the party apparatus, partly by reducing the voice of Laramie and Natrona counties, the two most populous counties.

On Saturday, the state central committee cut Natrona County’s delegation to the state GOP convention from 33 to six members. That’s less than Niobrara’s seven delegates!

The committee said it punished Natrona County for failing to pay dues owed to the organization. The county’s GOP committee previously filed a lawsuit against the state party over a related issue.

If the process to replace Balow allocated votes based on a county’s population, I doubt if all three of the party’s picks last Saturday would have been sent to the governor. Perhaps none of them would have made the cut.

That’s because many of Wyoming’s rural counties have GOP officials who are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. A good example is one of the SPI finalists, Halverson, who chairs the Lincoln County Republicans. She served three terms representing House District 22 before losing to independent Rep. Jim Roscoe in 2018.

In 2017, the far-right Wyoming Liberty Group ranked Halverson the second most conservative House member. It’s hard to believe, but she may actually be the third most conservative nominee to replace Balow.

My primary opposition to Halverson’s inclusion is based not on her politics, but the fact she’s not an educator. Yes, Wyoming only has three SPI requirements — the officeholder must be at least 25, a U.S. citizen, and qualified to be a Wyoming voter. But it’s reasonable to expect someone in charge of the state’s public school system to at least have some experience in the education field.

Several of the nine candidates who weren’t deemed worthy have extensive educational credentials. Sheridan Community College instructor Angela Raber and Joseph Heywood, executive director of the Wyoming Virtual Academy, both have doctorates in education. 

Joshua Valk, director of the University of Wyoming’s bachelor of applied science program, has a Ph.D. in higher education administration.

Michelle Aldrich, state director of career and technical education at the Wyoming Department of Education, has a Ph.D. in adult learning and technology.

Reagan Kaufman, a Cheyenne South High School teacher, has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.

SPI nominees Schroeder and Kelly are both educators, but they’ve made outrageous statements about the Wyoming schools they hope to guide.

Schroeder was keynote speaker at the Park County Republican Party’s Freedom Celebration in Cody last July. He warned attendees to be vigilant, because some people were trying to “infest and infect our local schools” with the “poison” of critical race theory.

According to the Powell Tribune, he also bemoaned schools progressing “from a curriculum that once had kids chanting the eight parts of speech to a curriculum that has students chanting to Aztec gods of human sacrifice.” 

If that’s not baffling enough, try this one: Another sign things are falling apart, Schroeder said, is that making kids show their math work is “now considered racist.” 

Kelly explained that his family moved to Wyoming because “the [Colorado] schools were teaching climate change, multiple genders, and white privilege to grammar school children.”

He told the committee Saturday that he’s seeking the superintendent’s job to help prevent public schools from promoting liberal ideologies.

“I want somebody in this position who can take this on, understand exactly that we are facing the greatest assault globally I’ve ever seen on liberty,” Kelly said. “I am here to do what I can to make sure that people are awake to what’s happening and how the kids are being used in public schools to be indoctrinated to do things like march in lockstep, wear their masks.”

Kelly and Schroeder fall right in line with Balow’s insistence on keeping politics out of classrooms — well, a certain kind of politics, that is.

Last September, Balow endorsed a proposed “Civics Transparency Act” sponsored by Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower). Their bill is designed to keep critical race theory — which isn’t being taught in Wyoming schools — out of Wyoming schools. In other words, it’s yet another solution gone looking for a problem from the Wyoming Legislature.

CRT is a boogeyman that has set the far right’s hair on fire. It’s a theory taught in some graduate schools that explores the systemic causes of institutional racism in the U.S. But Republicans like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — Balow’s new boss — got elected slamming CRT and claiming it’s pitting students of different races against each other.

CRT wasn’t being taught in Virginia schools, either, but Youngkin’s first executive order banned it anyway. He and Balow should get along fine.

And if one of the current trio of SPI nominees gets the office, I think Youngkin should bring Balow’s successor to Virginia, too. When you’re dealing with something as dangerous as critical race theory, governor, you can’t have too many Wyoming politicians on your side.

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. “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
    Thomas Paine

  2. The established precedent and the rule of law has triumphed. Thank you Judge Skavdahl for applying reason and the law to this debacle.

  3. If CRT doesn’t doesn’t exist in Wyoming then it won’t be found when the curriculum is reviewed, and there is nothing to worry about. It’s obviously been discovered in other areas of the country and is a legitimate cause of concern for many parents. Transparency is a good thing.

  4. The court will decide the representation issue. I’m more concerned by Gail Symons’ contention leadership was pushing for the three who received the nominations. I always thought they were supposed to remain neutral in the proceedings. She also reported they told the central committee members they had to vote for 3 candidates and could not vote for just one or two. Where is that in the Republican by-laws.

  5. Great reporting, great analysis. Thanks! The finalists have no idea what the job is; several of the folks you mentioned as also-rans know exactly what the job is, sans ideology, and would serve our K-12 students well.

  6. Why don’t you report on Dan Zwonitzer and his illegal activity? Oh I forgot, you’re a liberal and he’s a RINO.

  7. Kerry, this was no surprise! First, there is a more profound message coming out here: the three names have nothing in common with the historical and principled foundation of American public education. Second, yes your essay does address Balow and venal and vitriol resistance to a curriculum which fully addresses the failures in education in the social sciences. Doggone it Kerry, I spent over six years struggling with Balow and her resistance to reviewing and revising the state’s social standards. I got rebuffed by the WDE and Balow and eventually by the State Board of Education led by two Balow sycophants. Everything was about jingoist Wyoming whiteness. I reached out to WyoFile to talk and was ignored. Fine. Just know that Balow was working from a nation GOP playbook – which her “Transparency In Education” bill addresses – and not once was she bothered with her office as much as it was her personal pleonexia. This move by both Balow and the central committee were expected. Hence, look for an inner struggle between the far right GOP and sort of middle right of Affie Ellis (whom I expect to run for #5 spot in August)?

  8. I met a fellow last fall who had recently relocated to Wyoming from Washington State. He is an engineer employed by Microsoft. He told me that he couldn’t stand the liberals in Washington anymore. I had to stifle a snort a bit. Little does he realize that he is moving to a State where the pendulum has swung and flown off in the opposite direction. I’ve never been to a Republican committee meeting but they must be handing out crazy pills to all the attendees. Those three nominees are doozies.

  9. Donald Trump won the presidency in the electoral college by 100000 votes spread across 3 states and lost the popular vote by 3 million votes so the right wing, theocratic National GOP blew up the filibuster to install three supreme court justices that do not represent the thinking about Constitutional rights of most US voters. It is apparent a majority of the SCOTUS believes in a far bigger lie than the one Donald Trump whines about and apparently so does the Wyoming GOP.

    While I believe people should have a right to believe in any religion they want, they do not have the right to purposely vote in people that are going to put their religion over our US Constitution. It is apparent that one has to be indoctrinated at an early age to believe in the unerring god of the bible. You know the one that is portrayed as a perfect being but weirdly had to wipe out innocent men women and children in a flood. Yes that is the entity that the religious say should be the basis of our society instead of the US Constitution, which is ludicrous if said out loud but that is where we are.

    The US GOP, just like the Wyoming GOP is advocating for a theocracy and the way to achieve that is indoctrination in religion without interference from actual facts learned in public schools. This type of wild eyed thinking is what led to removing indigenous children from their parents and force feeding them religion and the white way in concentration camps. Make no mistake this crew would do the same thing again as they justify anything in the name of their stone age god.

    Conservatives that still believe in the Constitution should immediately join the Democratic Party as they value the right to believe in god, but also realize that the Constitution is a far more equitable way to run a humane society. The Founders knew religious based theocracies fail but those that believe are far more zealous about forcing their beliefs than those that just want to live and let live. That live and let live crowd needs to ban together and fight for equity in this life as its the only one we have.

    In the end I can see why the regressive baby boomers on the SCOTUS and the Wyoming GOP are in a rush to shove theocracy down our throats as they are dying disappointed before the rapture occurs that will return Jesus to earth, not to deliver a message of hope, but to throw unbelievers in a fiery pit.

    We are the only known sentient beings in the Universe to have evolved that can pontificate on life, clearly winning the galactic lottery, but we in fact do not deserve to get off this wonderful planet as the Wyoming GOP proves time and again with the people the “elect” to hold office.

    Have a blessed day.

  10. Reading the qualifications of the 3 persons being sent to Governor Gordon it may be time to remind folks of what happened in Wyoming education when Cindy Hill was given that job. Will we never learn ?
    Thank you Kerry for being a voice crying in the wilderness.
    W.B.

  11. Drake’s take has me shake my head this morning. If there is precedent, it can be found in how the U.S. Senate is set up – Wyoming has as many Senators as does California – a good example of unrepresentative democracy… That almost unrelated point aside, what the Wyoming Legislature does no longer surprises me. They are demonstrating how to keep new families and businesses from moving to Wyoming. They do that really well.

  12. I wonder how Kelly will feel about the job when he figures out that curriculum cannot be mandated by the Superintendent and that local school boards decide what their schools will offer. How boring to manage federal and state budgets, to provide professional development for educators, and develop a large scale assessment per state statute. Yawn!!!!

  13. Well done! Maybe a little too singed around the edges?

    At this point I am more concerned with the Wyoming State Land Board’s ability to sell off School Trust Lands. The proposed “swap” in Sheridan County of WY State Land (with a reservoir & wildlife habitat), for dry land near Dayton, is another subsidy for the already wealthy.

    The Columbus Peak exchange is a steal that was stopped by the lack of a second nomination last Fall. I appreciate Kerry’s take on the academic roles, but this dimension also merits consideration. Does anyone have insights into how the candidates might vote on state land sales?

  14. Great reporting for giving us full insight into how far right the Wyoming Republican Party is trending. The “reasonable” politicians Wyoming used to be known for are gradually disappearing and we voters need to wake up to it before we lose our state to autocratic far right wannabes. Our public education system needs to remain unbiased to provide our children exposure to the world as it is; not as conspiracy theorists want it to be. Thanks for the enlightenment Kerry.

  15. Without in depth reporting most residents wouldn’t be aware of the abuses of voting rights by the controlling party. Thanks for your efforts!

  16. Excellent editorial. It seems the once proud Republican Party has be3come the plaything of extremists and nutcases who think that in Wyoming anything (reactionary) goes.