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Education
Surveys touch surface of deeper question about Wyoming education system -- how best to prepare students
 Seth Klamann  / 
 10.12.17

Surveys and interviews with state leaders, educators and parents raised a broader question about what Wyoming’s education system should be offering to its students, consultants told lawmakers Thursday.

The responses — collected over recent months as part of the consultants’ wide-ranging review of the education funding model here — covered a range of topics, from special education to the effectiveness of the existing funding system. The consultants, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, used three different methods to obtain responses from three different groups:

one-on-one or small-group interviews with state leaders, like Gov. Matt Mead, state Superintendent Jillian Balow, the heads of several state education organizations, and others;

panels with more than 200 total educators in four towns across Wyoming;

an open online survey that had more than 1,200 responses from educators, parents, students and others. Forty-eight percent were parents, and 44 percent were educators.

The information was relayed by the consultants to the lawmakers on the Select Committee for School Finance Recalibration, which is charged with examining Wyoming’s system for funding education. Thursday’s meeting, which will continue Friday, is the first time the consultants have brought completed analysis to the committee, which must have its work finished by the end of January at the very latest.

The wide range of responses to the consultants’ survey revealed a deeper question at the heart of Wyoming’s education system: What should its ultimate goal be? Should it be used to ready students for a college campus, or should it prepare them for an office or job site?

The answer was both. Educators interviewed by the consultants and the broader range of people who took an online survey said that students are generally ready for college but that more emphasis should be placed on preparing those teenagers who will join the workforce after high school.

Either way, the respondents said, students should be ready for any post-high school path, and right now, the education system may be overemphasizing college readiness.

Justin Silverstein, one of the consultants who presented the findings to lawmakers, said that topic came up in every interview the firm performed.

Survey “(r)espondents often argued that not every student is going to go to college, so the educational program should ensure that they can be successful in whatever path they pursue,” the consultants wrote in a memo to lawmakers.

In 2014, roughly 53 percent of Wyoming high school graduates went straight to college, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Some of the interview respondents said the potential overemphasis on college readiness can be traced to districts striving to offer Hathaway Scholarship requirements, at the expense of workforce readiness courses. Because of the classes schools must ensure students have the opportunity to take, there’s less time for career technical education courses, the consultants were told.

“School and districts are making staffing and course offering decisions based upon the opportunities they need to provide students to be eligible; for example, providing a fourth year of math,” they wrote in their memo.

Still, there was some push back at the meeting. Paige Fenton Hughes, the superintendent for Converse County School District No. 1, said her district offered a lot of career technical education. But there weren’t a lot of jobs in Converse County for a high school graduate with a strong background in CTE.

“Kids can be perfectly successful without a college education, that may have been true,” she told lawmakers near the end of the meeting. “I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat and University of Wyoming professor, agreed and said that was especially true for women.

“For girls, they need to go to college,” she said. “It concerns me some if we don’t encourage our young people to consider postsecondary education.”

Educators said that a compounding factor is the dearth of qualified CTE teachers in Wyoming. Last spring, UW announced it was ending its CTE program, formally hosted at UW-Casper, because of low enrollment. A number of people — including UW instructors — had come to its defense as essential and unique to the state.

The elimination of that program did not come up at Thursday’s re-calibration meeting, which was coincidentally held at the UW-Casper part of Casper College’s campus.

Response to the funding model

There was consensus elsewhere in the results. For example, educators on the panels consistently advocated against further budget cuts and to continue providing districts with block grants because of the flexibility they give districts.

The educators also spoke out in favor of the current 100 percent reimbursement policy for both transportation and special education spending. Essentially, every dollar a district spends in either of those areas is reimbursed by the state.

Still, there was some disagreement.

For instance, educators generally felt they were meeting the needs of special education students. But parent respondents felt the opposite, the consultants told lawmakers on the recalibration committee.

Additionally, educators felt that the funding model that the state has used since 2005 is responsive to districts’ and students’ needs. But parents were more likely to disagree.

Elsewhere in the responses:

10 percent of educators said special education services for students with severe needs could be improved. For instance, the consultants noted that Wyoming has no school for the deaf or blind;

some educators also warned that recent cuts were having an effect on the educational program they’re required to provide to students and others said they didn’t want electives cut;

survey respondents were divided on whether all districts in the state could provide students the opportunity to meet the Hathaway Scholarship’s requirements, though Connolly noted that no district has ever notified officials that it’s unable to.


State-and-regional
Issues that excite conservatives elsewhere fall flat in Wyoming. Why?
 Arno Rosenfeld  / 
 10.13.17

GILLETTE — Marlayna Walker is a lifelong Christian. She thinks abortion should be banned. She doesn’t support gay couples adopting children. And she doesn’t like the idea of transgender people using public bathrooms that match their gender identity.

But ask Walker, a 30-year-old mother of three, if she wishes her state’s laws were more restrictive on those issues — some of which were recently debated in the Wyoming Legislature — and she’ll tell you absolutely not.

“I definitely don’t care about passing laws to prevent gays from adopting,” she said, bouncing her 18-month-old son, Zeke, in her arms outside a local bank in this northeastern Wyoming coal town. “I don’t want my legislature to do that. These are just my beliefs.”

About 40 miles away in the town of Wright, Lori Sanders is wiping down a counter at Hank’s Roadside Bar and Grill, a hot spot for local miners when they get off work. She’ll tell you people don’t care much for politics here.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Lori Sanders, a bartender at Hank’s Roadside Bar and Grill in Wright, laughs with a customer during her shift last month. When asked if it bothered her that state politicians don’t push hot-button social issues, she replied,”They’re not an issue with us here. We get along with everybody. We’re not prejudiced at all here... It’s because we’re a variety and mixture here. It doesn’t bother us. You get along with them no matter who they are, what religion it is, what their race is.”

Sanders, who has tended bar here for years, says her favorite part of the job is just seeing how accepting everyone is of each other. It may not be the most diverse area; it’s an overwhelmingly white, working-class community. But anyone is welcome, she said, and that’s part of what being a Wyomingite means.

“We don’t put anybody to the side because of who they are,” said Sanders, 43. “I know so many gays and I know so many different religions and stuff, that if they was to walk in here right now, I would hug every one of ‘em.”

Strains of conservatism

Judging by the numbers, Wyoming is the most conservative state in the country. Every statewide elected official is Republican, as are 78 of the 90 state legislators. President Donald Trump won all but one county last year, and the 68.2 percent of the vote he received here was the highest in the nation. More Wyoming residents self-identify as “conservative” than in any other state, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, outnumbering self-identified “liberals” by 35 percentage points.

Yet, there is a confounding aspect to the way conservatism expresses itself in the Cowboy State: Some of the most hot-button social issues haven’t caught on.

In the last legislative session, a proposed “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people never made it to the floor. Gov. Matt Mead (R) vetoed a bill that would have allowed people to carry guns into state and local government meetings, saying its effects were murky. While Wyoming lacks easy access to abortion facilities as it is ― the only clinics are in the tiny resort town of Jackson ― legislation aimed at further restricting reproductive rights routinely fails, despite a couple of related measures that were passed recently.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A man crosses a street recently in downtown Gillette. 

Political issues are much the same. As Republican legislatures in far more moderate states scramble to pass stringent laws requiring official identification to vote in elections, Wyoming voters can register at the polls on the day of the election — no ID needed. Secretary of State Ed Murray (R) has railed against the Trump administration’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, calling it a precursor to unconstitutional overreach in state elections.

It seems Wyomingites have their own ideas about what it means to be conservative.

Live and let live

HuffPost and the Star-Tribune drove around eastern Wyoming talking to people in supermarkets, in bars and on the streets to find out what they make of their state’s unusual breed of conservatism. There was a clear theme: In a state as vast as Wyoming and with so few people in it ― it’s the least populated in the country, with 585,000 residents ― people mostly just want to live and let live.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Marlayna Walker holds her 18-month-old son, Zeke, last month in downtown Gillette. Walker said she takes a conservative stance on social issues including abortion and gay couples adopting children, but doesn't think the government should pass new restrictions. 

Walker, a stay-at-home mom, said she’s way more concerned about being able to afford health care for her kids than having an ideological debate about who has to pee in which bathroom.

“We’re struggling,” she said. “We pay $1,000 a month for [post-employment health insurance]. My husband runs a small business. He doesn’t have enough employees to provide health care.”

Things like transgender bathroom bills “don’t affect me,” Walker added. “We should do what’s best for most people.”

Carl Kruzich, a 63-year-old retired plumber in Casper, said he thinks people are too focused on political labels and that they don’t really matter.

“Who am I to decide what’s for anybody else?” he asked.

“Every time people talk about liberals and conservatives, they’ve got to explain it to me again so I can figure out what the hell I am. I’m serious. I could give a flying f---,” Kruzich said. “Just get along. Work things out. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Steve Rosgen, a 68 year old wood carver and former coal worker, lights a cigarette Sep. 7 at Hank's Roadside Bar and Grille in Wright. When asked if it bothered him that state politicians don't push hot button social issues he replied, "Here [in Wright] it doesn't matter. We just all get along. It's somewhere where everybody can relax and get away from that bull****."

Politicians in the state seem to understand this message. The Wyoming Legislature meets for less than two months each year in Cheyenne and lawmakers generally hold full-time jobs outside of politics. With a packed agenda when lawmakers do get together, there often simply isn’t time to spend on divisive topics, said Republican political consultant Bill Cubin.

“Rank-and-file legislators, they’ll tell you, ‘We have so little time down in Cheyenne in the legislative session. We have to get budgets done and fund infrastructure and set policy that is impacting people today,’” Cubin said. “A lot of those social issues fall through the cracks.”

There are other dimensions to the state’s unconventional politics. In a sit-down interview, the governor said that despite Republican dominance, there is a significant diversity of opinion within their ranks. He speculated that because it is such a red state, there are some politicians who might be Democrats in other states but slap an “R” after their name here.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Gov. Matt Mead speaks to reporters at the Casper Star-Tribune Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 16, 2017.

“I have close friends who I think, many will even say, ‘I am more closely aligned with the Democratic Party, but I want relevance in terms of how I participate in the political process,’” Mead said. “I do think that happens.”

He also thinks politics is inherently different in a state with so few people.

“When we talk about policy, it’s not on academic terms. It affects your cousin and my sister. It affects our neighbor,” Mead said. “I think that’s why trust is not limited to just a ‘D’ or an ‘R.’ It’s, ‘We want you to delve into this because what you do in a citizen legislature with a small population, you will effect change.’”

Perhaps that is how state Treasurer Mark Gordon, a former member of the Sierra Club and donor to Democrat John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004, can be considered a front-runner in the Republican primary to replace Mead next year.

Seeking connection

It’s not to say Wyoming doesn’t embrace traditionally conservative policies in certain areas. It has some of the lowest property and sales taxes in the country, and no personal or corporate income tax. Even while facing a budget deficit of several hundred million dollars, leaders in the Legislature have shown far more interest in slashing services than raising revenue.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Pumpjacks operate at a Campbell County oil well site in late August. 

When it comes to natural resources, the lifeblood of the state’s economy, nearly all politicians call for more state control and less federal influence on drilling and mining regulations.

And political observers see some social issues advancing in the Legislature, too. They point to two bills regulating abortion that passed last year ― the first ones on this issue to become law in nearly 30 years ― as well as a larger trend toward GOP litmus tests in the form of candidate questionnaires and anti-tax pledges.

“Are you a Republican in name only?” is how Marguerite Herman, a longtime lobbyist for the League of Women Voters in Wyoming, describes this new attitude in GOP political circles. “I mean, that phrase never used to come up. It comes up all the time now.”

Some residents wouldn’t mind if party leaders tackled social issues a bit more. Kathy Gaffney of Gillette said she’s struggling with how liberal her daughters have become since they went off to college and moved to Colorado.

“They believe in everything: gay rights, abortion, you know, just anti-religious type things,” said Gaffney, 68, a recent retiree. “I do not want any of those things going on.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Trucks travel along Highway 50 between Gillette and Midwest on Sep. 7 in Campbell County. 

Denise Lubken, her friend standing nearby, just laughed. She put her arm around Gaffney and said she used to get upset about those issues. But after moving to Wyoming several years back with her husband, she said, she’s moved past the days of “looking for causes and jumping up and down and screaming them.”

Life is slow here, said Lubken, a 60-year-old former school counselor. Communities are small and spread apart. People are more interested in trying to connect with each other ― and accept each other for who they are ― than in trying to conform to whatever the Republican Party considers to be a true “conservative,” she said.

“I’d rather have a relationship with people,” Lubken added. “What’s the alternative, ‘I can’t care anything about you because you believe in something different?’ Just a bunch of fighting and screaming? We just don’t do that.”


Energy
State denies permit for first coal mine in decades; company can resubmit
 Heather Richards  / 
 10.12.17

State regulators rejected a permit for Brook Mine on Thursday, a proposed coal mine in northern Wyoming. This official decision comes 15 days after an

independent citizen’s council sided with landowners over environmental concerns.

Some locals in Sheridan had argued that the coal firm, originally from Kentucky, had put forward a deficient plan for operations in the historically mined region. From ensuring protection of neighboring water wells, to studying the impact that blasting would have on nearby buildings to the risk of increased sinkholes, the Environmental Quality Council decided in four-to-one vote that the company should go back to the drawing board. Based on that decision, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality reversed its earlier position and denied the mine permit and laid out a number of steps for Ramaco to remedy the application and try again. “We denied based on the order and the findings from EQC. Obviously there is still a door open for [Ramaco] to review these deficiencies, but that is up to them,” said Keith Guille, spokesman for the state environmental agency. “They can resubmit it, and we have to review that and make sure that it meets, for us, completion.” The coal company’s CEO said he was pleased by the state’s position in a statement Thursday. After the citizen’s council decision in September, the company had implied a legal response if it was forced to start over. “There is never a victory for Wyoming when the creation of high quality jobs and opportunities in coal/carbon innovation, manufacturing and energy technology for Wyoming’s current and future generations is deferred or prevented,” said CEO Randall Atkins. “We appreciate, however, that the DEQ will allow Ramaco Carbon to now supplement its current application.” Atkins also thanked local supporters in his statement. The Brook Mine began as an idea for an ordinary thermal coal mine, a dwarf compared to the large surface mines in neighboring Campbell County that sell coal to power plants across the country. But the coal market busted in the midst of the company’s legal battles. Earlier this year, Ramaco Carbon announced that Brook would feed

a coal research center to advance carbon product technology

, calling the coal “too valuable to burn.” The news was welcome by some in the region, eager for the economic boon of new jobs and local revenue.

It was criticized by those still wrangling for more environmental protections

from the mine itself and a neighboring coal company, Big Horn Coal, that is in a dispute with Ramaco over permit boundaries. The Powder River Basin Resource Council made a statement saying its members were glad about the decision and that the permit fight had been difficult. The group also criticized Ramaco’s statement. “It’s important to remember that the permit application the EQC remanded as deficient on a number of grounds ... is for a coal mine, not a research center or a carbon fiber manufacturing plant,” said Councilmember Gillian Malone. “As with previously released statements, Ramaco is spinning a tale to woo the public on what are currently unfulfillable promises.” Should the company proceed and satisfy state regulators’ requests for a hydrology study and environmental assurances against subsidence concerns and the impacts of blasting, the amended application will again be sent out for public comment.

State regulators rejected a permit for Brook Mine on Thursday, a proposed coal mine in northern Wyoming.

This official decision comes 15 days after an independent citizen’s council sided with landowners over environmental concerns. Some locals in Sheridan had argued that the coal firm, originally from Kentucky, had put forward a deficient plan for operations in the historically mined region.

From ensuring protection of neighboring water wells, to studying the impact that blasting would have on nearby buildings to the risk of increased sinkholes, the Environmental Quality Council decided in four-to-one vote that the company should go back to the drawing board. Based on that decision, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality reversed its earlier position and denied the mine permit and laid out a number of steps for Ramaco to remedy the application and try again.

“We denied based on the order and the findings from EQC. Obviously there is still a door open for [Ramaco] to review these deficiencies, but that is up to them,” said Keith Guille, spokesman for the state environmental agency. “They can resubmit it, and we have to review that and make sure that it meets, for us, completion.”

The coal company’s CEO said he was pleased by the state’s position in a statement Thursday. After the citizen’s council decision in September, the company had implied a legal response if it was forced to start over.

“There is never a victory for Wyoming when the creation of high quality jobs and opportunities in coal/carbon innovation, manufacturing and energy technology for Wyoming’s current and future generations is deferred or prevented,” said CEO Randall Atkins. “We appreciate, however, that the DEQ will allow Ramaco Carbon to now supplement its current application.”

Atkins also thanked local supporters in his statement.

The Brook Mine began as an idea for an ordinary thermal coal mine, a dwarf compared to the large surface mines in neighboring Campbell County that sell coal to power plants across the country. But the coal market busted in the midst of the company’s legal battles.

Earlier this year, Ramaco Carbon announced that Brook would feed a coal research center to advance carbon product technology, calling the coal “too valuable to burn.” The news was welcome by some in the region, eager for the economic boon of new jobs and local revenue. It was criticized by those still wrangling for more environmental protections from the mine itself and a neighboring coal company, Big Horn Coal, that is in a dispute with Ramaco over permit boundaries.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council made a statement saying its members were glad about the decision and that the permit fight had been difficult. The group also criticized Ramaco’s statement.

“It’s important to remember that the permit application the EQC remanded as deficient on a number of grounds ... is for a coal mine, not a research center or a carbon fiber manufacturing plant,” said Councilmember Gillian Malone. “As with previously released statements, Ramaco is spinning a tale to woo the public on what are currently unfulfillable promises.”

Should the company proceed and satisfy state regulators’ requests for a hydrology study and environmental assurances against subsidence concerns and the impacts of blasting, the amended application will again be sent out for public comment.