CHEYENNE – Gabriel Piña had recently moved to Cheyenne when he decided to run for a seat on the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees in 2014.

His kids go to school in the district’s south triad – whose population is historically lower-income and with a larger percentage of Hispanic residents – and he wanted to see the neighborhood represented on the board.

The school board, which consists of seven unpaid, at-large elected seats, does not have one member from the South triad. It’s been that way for a number of years.

“I came in dead last. I think a lot of it was that I didn’t have the name recognition,” said Piña, who ran against former trustee Mark Klaassen. When Klaassen became U.S. Attorney in 2017, his wife, Christy, won his seat in 2018.

“It’s near impossible for anyone from the south side to get an open seat,” Piña said. “The majority of voters come from the Central and East triad regions.”

Creating what Piña and others perceive as fair representation on the school board is why he joined other parents, teachers and community members in supporting a proposal to draw triad-influenced boundaries around three of the seven seats. The four remaining seats would stay at-large.

Trustee Tim Bolin first sponsored the proposal in 2018.

“Our school board should reflect our community. I don’t believe our school board currently reflects our community,” Bolin said. “I think this policy would help to address that.”

The policy failed last year, but received more favorable review this year and made it to a full board vote last week.

After more than two hours of detailed discussion on COVID-19 learning plans, the board voted 5-1 to reject the proposal, which still had to go through a 45-day public comment period before the board could take a final vote. Chairwoman Marguerite Herman only votes to break a tie.

“I can’t understand why the board wouldn’t want the public to hear it,” said Bolin, the only trustee to vote in favor of it last week. He noted that both Laramie County School District 2 and the Cheyenne City Council have delineated some seats by district.

“Everyone that’s talked to me has been in support of it,” said Bolin, who said he was “blindsided” by the vote. “It would make it so that voices from each part of town could be heard.”

LCSD1 Trustee Nate Breen, who led the rejection of the proposal, said he did so in the name of unity.

“I have a real problem with the proposal because we are a singular school district,” Breen said. “To set aside these three different areas, you’re creating constituencies for at least three board members. You’ll have delegates concerned about their voters instead of the district as a whole.”

Breen, who recently announced his candidacy for Wyoming Senate, said that if particular neighborhoods want their voice heard during elections, it’s up to the voters who live there.

“There’s no history of voter suppression in this town,” Breen said. “The only voter suppression is that people in certain areas of town don’t get out and vote. Guaranteeing particular membership on the school board isn’t going to guarantee voter turnout will be better.”

But having a guaranteed representative of the south triad is something Carla Gregorio, who also supported the restructuring proposal, said was missing during her 19-year tenure as principal of an elementary school in south Cheyenne.

“We don’t have a person we can call. It’s not like that person’s going to side with us all of the time. We just want to have someone we feel comfortable calling,” said Gregorio, who recalled barriers to certain resources and building repairs.

Although more than half of the residents of south Cheyenne identify as Hispanic, Gregorio said she doesn’t think race is the driving factor behind the rejection of the proposal.

“The board really believes they’re advocating for all kids. But since they don’t reside in south Cheyenne, they don’t advocate for all kids,” Gregorio said. “But south Cheyenne just so happens to have the largest number of minorities.”

Antonio Serrano, who is a south Cheyenne resident and parent of five school-aged children, also supported the proposal, which he hoped would help diversify the all-white board.

“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,” Serrano said. “Having someone who lives on our side of town and realizes what we go through is vital.”

When Serrano, who is also chairman of Juntos Wyoming, found out the board rejected the proposal to restructure school board elections, he was “outraged.”

Although the proposal is all but dead this year, Juntos is now calling on anyone who supports the proposal to tell the school board during the public comment period of its next meeting April 20.

“We need more folks to pay attention,” Serrano said. “We need people to show up and have their voice heard.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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