CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s largest school district has voted to do away with electing all seven of its school board members through an at-large process.
And according to many residents of the state’s capital city, the new policy has potential to create more equitable representation of the whole community on the school board.
“This is a good change,” said Alyssa Romero, a parent with two children who attend Hebard Elementary School. Romero said she doesn’t feel particularly connected with the current school board members, but she hopes the residence-area election could help change that.
“If trustees are coming from our area, then they’re familiar with our area. They know what’s going on. They see our kids. They see our schools,” she said. “People who don’t live in our area might not see or hear about the things happening in our schools.”
Although the change will not go into effect until the 2022 election cycle, the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted unanimously Monday night to convert three of its seven at-large seats to residence-area seats. The boundaries of those three new seats will loosely reflect the district’s three triads.
Little fanfare accompanied the final vote. Yet, it ended a contentious, months-long community debate about the merits of the proposal.
Advocates of the residence-area proposal have argued that it will aid in allowing school board candidates who are more likely to be non-white, from a low-income background or short on name recognition to run a competitive campaign. In theory, that could bring more diverse representation to the board that oversees district operations, they said.
Several of the current trustees have the advantage of widespread name recognition, including Christy Klaassen, whose husband, U.S. Attorney Mark Klaassen, previously served on the board, and Lynn Storey-Huylar, who hails from a long line of local politicians.
Moreover, all seven members of the school board – who each campaigned across the entire district to win their spots – identify as white, and none of them live in south Cheyenne, which has one of the city’s highest concentrations of low-income and Hispanic residents. At South High School, for instance, around 34% of students identify as Hispanic, whereas 7% of the overall district’s do.
”Far from over”
“None of the board members know what it’s like to worry that someone in your family will be deported. They don’t know what it’s like to be called a racial slur. They don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against for the color of your skin,” Antonio Serrano, a south Cheyenne parent and chair of the discrimination group Juntos, told the board at a public meeting earlier this year.
“This proposal passing is an amazing step toward equity, but we know it will not fix all the problems,” Serrano told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in response to Monday night’s vote. “During the review portion of this proposal, we heard person after person come forward with stories of racism and being ignored. The work to make sure our schools are a safe and welcoming place for us all is far from over.”
Opponents of the policy change – which, despite Monday’s unanimous board vote, has previously included several members of the school board – have argued that creating residence-area elections could factionalize the board.
“(I)n six years on the board, I have seen trustees respond without regard to triad loyalty to make sure our students get the education and services and safe environments they need to succeed,” Chairwoman Marguerite Herman told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle back in May.
“There have been lapses, when trustees favored their ‘constituents’,” she added. “I wouldn’t want to make that the rule.”
Herman did not vote Monday night, since the board chair only votes to break a tie.
Earlier this year, the board cited that and a lack of procedural information about the proposal, when it twice declined to move forward the proposal for public comment – the last step before it reaches a final vote.
Vocal public calls to reconsider, however, pushed the board to engage both the expertise of local elections officials and community members about the logistics and expectations of the residence-area proposal, as well as larger equity issues.
In July, the board voted to advance the proposal for a 45-day public comment period. Monday’s vote comes a couple of weeks after the district released a report that revealed members of the public who provided their input overwhelmingly supported the policy change, the full language of which can be found on the school board’s website.
Of the roughly 600 members of the public who formally weighed in on the proposal, about 85% supported it, including Wyoming state Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne.
When it came time for Monday’s vote, the benefits of restructuring LCSD1’s school board election process seemingly outweighed some board members’ earlier concerns.
“As an elected official (who practices) good governance, it’s not enough to say you support or oppose something. We’re elected to do our homework so we can make a thoughtful and informed decision,” Vice chair Rose Ann Million Rinne said at the time of the vote. “I think this resolution has come to place where we all felt a bit more comfortable in voting for it.”
A version of this story was originally appeared online at WyomingNews.com and on the WyoNews app at 10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5.