CHEYENNE – A contentious proposal to change the way Wyoming’s largest school district elects its board members is gaining support.
During a virtual community meeting hosted by the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees on Thursday night, all seven of the board members expressed – to differing degrees – support for gathering public comment about converting three of those at-large seats to residence-area district seats that would loosely reflect the city’s triad boundaries.
That hasn’t always been the case.
All of the trustees – except for Tim Bolin who sponsored it – have publicly dismissed the proposal at least once in the past year.
When Bolin first proposed this policy in 2018, the board declined to move it forward. This year, Bolin again proposed it, but he was the only trustee who voted to bring it forward for a 45-day public comment period and possible final vote.
After that, publicized backlash from community advocates of the proposal – many of whom identify as Hispanic, as residents of the historically lower-income neighborhoods on the south side of town or both – captured the board’s attention. Three of the board members – Bolin, Rich Wiederspahn and Christy Klaassen – voted in favor, but the other four members voted against it and it did not pass into the public comment period, which has to happen before the board can take a final vote.
Further calls from the community to put the policy change out for a public review prompted the board to seek more information about the proposal, especially about how to draw the new districts and how exactly residence-areas would translate to a more inclusive learning environment.
On Thursday night, the board first heard from Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee about how, if passed, the residence-areas would be drawn based on the results of this year’s U.S. Census, and not be drawn around the triad lines residents understand.
But none of those particulars seemed to concern the bevy of community advocates who used the latter half of the meeting to call for support of the proposal, which would go into effect in 2022 if passed.
In the past, some board members have opposed the change because they argued it would create constituencies among board members.
Will Dinneen, who identified himself as a graduate of Central High School and well-studied on the political science behind the proposal, was the only person to speak out against it. Dinneen, who is also the communications and policy director for the Wyoming Secretary of State's office, said he believes it would increase money’s influence in politics and foster factionalism.
More than a feeling
“There are just so many advantages to electing school board members at large,” Dineen said. “There is a feeling of fairness that comes with districted representation – that has been studied. But what has also been studied is that sometimes it is only the feeling of fairness that comes along with it. A child might only have the representation of one or two school board members – not (seven) at-large.”
Recently, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle spoke with three political scientists, who have studied this policy issue for several decades, and they all said school boards with residence-area members have had measurable effects on increasing minority student test scores and diversifying educator workforces, among other quantifiable factors.
Those are the types of trends supporters of the proposal say they want to see in Cheyenne, though nearly everyone acknowledged they don’t expect it to fix all of the district’s documented inequities.
For instance, South High School, which serves many of the families living on the south side, is the most racially diverse high school in the district, with more than 40% of students identifying as non-white. However, about 7% of educators in the district identify as Hispanic and even fewer identify as black. Parents of non-white students have also raised concerns about unequal discipline of their children – which is borne out in federal data that shows black students and Hispanic students in LCSD1 are more likely to face suspension than their white peers – as well as a lack of inclusive curriculum and inadequate responses to bullying.
“I am supportive of triad representation because I do feel like it’s a way for our families to feel like they have a greater voice in the process. We’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve asked for greater representation through this process, and I think it deserves our fair consideration,” Klaassen said.
"Disappointed" in accusations of racism
Klaassen added, however, that she’s been “disappointed by some in our community who have suggested that any question, concern or opposition to the proposal represented a privileged viewpoint or even a racist viewpoint.”
That statement echoed the sentiments of Trustee Lynn Storey-Huylar, who also said she’s been called “horrible names” and accused of having “white privilege” for not always supporting the policy change.
Klaassen, who along with all of the other board members identifies as white and does not live on the south side, said, “It’s important not to assume we know people and their motives and backgrounds,” as she told the board about how, as a white woman, she has experienced poverty and other hardships – and also lived on the south side of Cheyenne in the past.
"A lifetime" of experiencing racism
Around 10 community members, including Wyoming Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, came out in support of the proposal and reassured the trustees that if there’s been any heat on them lately, it is not personal, but rather an expression of frustration from people who feel consistently unheard.
Antonio Serrano, advocacy manager of the Wyoming chapter of the ACLU and one of the creators of a widely circulated online petition in favor of the proposal, said he “can understand how hate can take a toll on a person” because he’s “experienced a lifetime of it.”
He hopes this proposal could help mitigate some of those experiences for future generations, and – for at least the third time in as many months – asked the board to consider it.
“I’m sorry people have made you feel uncomfortable, but this anger, rage and frustration comes from a place of feeling ignored,” Serrano said. “As a Chicano man in this community, I’ve experienced everything from police brutality to racists threatening my life for raising my voice for my community.”
“The community is growing more and more diverse – we’re changing. If we want our kids to feel like they belong here and they are part of Cheyenne, it’s up to us to make sure they see themselves represented in a place of power.”
The board said it will plan a work session in the near future to draft a proposal and possibly vote to put it out for a 45-day public comment period.