CORRECTION: The previous version of this article said Laramie County School District 1 trustee Christy Klaassen moved from California to Cheyenne. Her hometown is in California, but she moved from Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago to Cheyenne.
CHEYENNE – Three out of the four candidates for the Area 3 seat on the Laramie County School District 1 board are parents searching for change.
They have children who attend schools in Area 3, which closely aligns with the district’s Central triad. Many said during separate interviews this week it was their motivation to run.
“As a parent with three children in our school system, I have a vested interest in seeing our schools maximize the potential of each student,” incumbent Christy Klaassen told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “The board also needs members who will be responsive and effective voices for families and the community. As a conservative, I feel that it is important to manage our resources responsibly and to plan for challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.”
Klaassen, 52, is one of two trustees seeking re-election in LCSD1. Trustee Rich Wiederspahn, 75, is campaigning in Area 2, also described as the East triad. There is another incumbent’s seat open after Marguerite Herman decided to run as a Democrat for the House District 11 seat in the Wyoming Legislature.
Twenty candidates filed to run for the board; 15 remain. Three dropped out of the Area 3 race, including Michelle Tonacchio, who announced she didn’t want to split conservative votes between herself and Klaassen.
Klaassen is part of a joint “vote conservative” campaign with trustee candidates Susan Edgerton, Hank Bailey and Brooke Humphrey in different areas. Klaassen said she believes she has added an “important conservative voice to the board, and I hope to continue that representation.”
This was Klaassen’s first term after her 2018 election. Her husband, Mark Klaassen, previously held the seat, and resigned in 2017 to become U.S. attorney for Wyoming. She applied to fill his open seat and wasn’t selected.
She moved to Cheyenne just over a decade ago from Washington D.C., and got her introduction to LCSD1 schools while working as a substitute teacher. She is a Wyoming Community College Commission policy analyst.
Some accomplishments Klaassen cited in a statement were lifting COVID-19 mask requirements and “changing an unnecessarily restrictive quarantine policy,” reducing unnecessary expenditures and a ban on personal use of cellphones in class. She noted “removing unapproved materials that had been posted on the district website that include divisive content related to critical race theory.”
Her goals include a policy change for checking out library books, improving safety and security, and revisiting the decision to cut elementary school sports. She said she reluctantly made the decision based on a dire financial forecast.
“I want to also ensure the district remains focused on the basics of education, rather than cultural or political indoctrination,” she said. “It is concerning to me that so many of our institutions are being used to dictate a particular worldview or partisan viewpoints, when what we need to do is to fairly present issues and information and help children develop the skills necessary to think for themselves.”
Melissa Therliault, 42, said she doesn’t believe Klaassen has been as big an advocate for her constituents’ desires as was expected. Therliault said her experience advocating for people with disabilities and an attorney who represents parents gives her a track record to get change.
“You create an echo chamber, and there’s no one there to tell you that you’ve gone too far,” she told the WTE. “I’ve never been afraid to say what is right, regardless of whether I win or lose.”
She was born and raised in Wyoming before moving to Nebraska after high school, and she returned to go to school at Casper College. She attended the University of Wyoming Law School, and she’s now a lawyer and a case manager for individuals with developmental disabilities.
She said she decided to run because she wants to ensure the best education for all students. She worries about the disconnect between low assessment scores and the graduation rate, and she wants to look at curriculum and how reading is taught.
“I’m looking forward to taking a hard look at the testing and figure out what is going on there, because the national rhetoric has been too controlling of our current school board,” she said. “I just want to focus on the Wyoming kids.”
Her complaints with the current board refer to a concentration on national issues. One of those topics is about books.
“Every parent has the right to say what books they think their child should have,” she said. “No parent has the right to tell me what book my child can’t have.”
Todd Reynolds, 48, is similarly critical of the LCSD1 trustees. He wants to see them follow board policy on ethics, which states that outside groups and political parties will not influence how trustees vote and conduct themselves.
“It’s guiding how they think, so those trustees have become more focused on party adherence than they have on the education of the 14,000 kids here,” he told the WTE.
Reynolds is a Cheyenne native who went to school in the Central triad and got his first teaching job in English at Central High School. He is now a UW assistant professor of secondary English education, and he received his doctoral degree in literacy education there.
“We have a fantastic district here. We have amazing teachers,” he said. “I just want to keep giving back to the community that gave me so much.”
He would refocus the board on issues important to the district, implementing the new strategic plan in the next few years, and making literacy education is a priority. He said his background in college student literacy will help him work with curriculum coordinators and teachers to make sure students are supported.
He said this wouldn’t be done through micromanaging, but rather communicating with district officials and getting the necessary materials.
“Arts education is another one that’s really important to me, and making sure we maintain our great arts program,” he said. “We have a wonderful instrumental program from fourth grade through high school. We have a great choir program, we have some amazing visual artists and visual art teachers.”
Tara Russell is the final candidate for the Area 3 seat. She didn’t respond to multiple email inquiries about an interview.
Trustee Rich Wiederspahn didn’t respond in time to be included in WTE’s first article in this series. He reached out after it was published.
This was his first term on the board, and he has more than three decades of experience in public education, serving as a teacher, principal and central office administrator across the state. He moved to Cheyenne after accepting a position in the district as the assistant director of special education, and then as principal at Dildine Elementary.
He resigned to run for state superintendent of public instruction, and after losing, he was elected to the Cheyenne City Council. He then moved on to serve as an LCSD1 trustee for Area 2.
Wiederpahn said he can’t think of anything more important than kids’ education. He said he is proud of work he has done on the strategic plan, placing an emphasis on literacy and student readiness.
Meanwhile, “we were distracted by the mask issue. We were distracted by this issue of library books. We were distracted by the issues related to the National School Boards Association,” he said. “I’m not saying those things aren’t important, because they’re important to a lot of people, but I just think sometimes we devoted way too much time to them.”
He wants to continue implementing the district’s plan, to make significant progress in literacy for primary grades and to continue to get parents more involved with schools.
“The board really needs to specifically be focused on issues related to students, supporting teachers, creating healthy environments and engaging our community,” he said.