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.
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.