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Alan Rogers photos, Star-Tribune  

Sami Saunders, a sixth-grader who plays the role of Tillie, rehearses a scene from “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” at Stage III Community Theatre. The production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play opens Friday.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students Tuesday morning in the fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at the Woods Learning Center as she toured the school during her kickoff for the “Rethink School” tour.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tells Casper audience that country 'must' rethink schools

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Natrona County’s policy of school choice Tuesday in Casper while urging nationwide educators to move away from what she called an outdated model for educating students.

“It’s time to rethink schools,” she said. “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that, and the generation before that, and the generation before that.”

DeVos walked through the doors of Woods Learning Center in central Casper on Tuesday morning to a chorus of boos from the more than 30 protesters standing on a hill outside the building. It’s her first stop on a six-state, Midwest and Western “Rethink Schools” tour. Officials said the visit has been in the works for a couple of weeks but became concrete late last week. Rita Walsh, the vice chairwoman of the school board, said she learned of the visit Monday.

DeVos chose the Natrona County School District — and Woods Learning Center in particular — because of its innovative approach. Natrona County is a district of choice, meaning students have the opportunity to attend any school in the county. Woods Learning Center, meanwhile, features a 26-year-old program in which multiple grade levels learn in the same classroom and a group of teachers run the school, instead of a principal. Students also have a say in what they learn.

“The people here have begun to rethink school in a really significant way and are really looking to meet the needs of students wherever they are,” DeVos told reporters.

Max D’Onofrio, spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, said the senator’s office “helped provide a bit of local knowledge, background and contact information for Wyoming schools.” But he said the selections were based on the department’s own work in the state and Enzi did not recommend Woods.

It isn’t DeVos’ first time talking about Wyoming schools. During her confirmation hearing earlier this year, she famously said some schools here may need guns to protect themselves from bears. On Tuesday, protesters brought teddy bears, and Casper resident Cheryl Parlett carried a sign that said “Yogi Bear says no to guns.”

DeVos toured several classrooms at Woods, spending time with fourth- and fifth-graders as they circled up and talked about how they were feeling. Then she walked to a kindergarten and first-grade classroom, where students were making cats out of colored paper.

After DeVos left, one girl — who looked apprehensively at the cameras and adults crowding the back of the classroom — whispered to her friend, “She actually talked to us.”

At her speech later Tuesday morning, DeVos praised the Natrona County School District for recognizing that different students have different needs.

“Open enrollment gives families the opportunities to find the schools that are best for them and their children,” she said in her speech. “Students, your parents know you best. And they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you.”

In which direction DeVos thinks schools need to move is unclear, other than away from the current system, which she derided as an outdated model from Prussia (“Can you find Prussia on a map?” she asked).

DeVos — previously a Michigan-based philanthropist who strongly supported voucher programs and charter schools — didn’t mention those programs during her speech. But she said many educators are stuck in old ways of teaching students, with rows of desks and a teacher at the front of the class.

“Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who vow to defend something they call the education system,” she said. “What’s an education system? There’s no such thing. Are you guys systems? No, you’re individual students.”

She added that teachers and parents know more about student needs than “so-called education professionals who are often staunch defenders of the status quo.”

In an interview with media after the speech, DeVos was asked whether she thought a voucher program or charter schools were viable in a small, rural state where half of the districts have less than a thousand students, and many have less than 500. She said that all districts — even small ones — sometimes need to take a step back and evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.

“I always think that having more choices for parents to make to really find the right education for each of their children is really important,” she said. “And it’s also up to the people of every state to decide how that happens. But what is not negotiable is the notion that every child should have an equal opportunity to get a great education.”

After DeVos left, the remaining protesters specifically criticized DeVos’ past support for vouchers and charter schools. Jane Ifland, the coordinator for progressive group Indivisible Casper, was holding a sign that said “rethink vouchers.”

She called the voucher program a “profound anti-American concept” and said that tax dollars in America should support public education rather than private institutions.

Ifland also took issue with DeVos’ recent decision to re-examine how sexual assault investigations are handled on college campuses, apparently with an eye toward respecting the rights of the accused. While details of the review and what DeVos wants the new system to be remain unclear, DeVos has called sexual assault investigations — which were altered and the burden of proof lowered under the Obama administration — a “failed system.”

During a press conference with media at Woods, DeVos said it was a tough issue but that “the reality is that the current system doesn’t do right for all students and by all students, and we need to get it right for all students.”

DeVos traveled to the Wind River Reservation and St. Stephens Indian School on Tuesday afternoon. Her tour will also include stops in Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Kansas and Colorado.

City of Casper hires CFO to help with budget troubles

Casper’s new chief financial officer starts Monday, as the city manager continues looking for millions of dollars to cut from the budget.

Tom Pitlick served most recently as the finance director for the city of Gillette, Casper City Manager Carter Napier announced Wednesday.

“Tom’s experience as a finance director, particularly in regards to economic declines, will certainly help the city during the challenges we currently face,” said Napier.

Napier, who was hired in June, was instructed by Casper City Council to rein in spending and reduce the approximately $4 million in reserves being used in the budget. Napier also came from Gillette.

Casper’s budget challenges stem from low sales tax revenue and concerns over the certainty of state funding, which may be in jeopardy since the state is continuing to face low tax revenue due to the weak energy market.

Napier announced in July that he planned to eliminate the assistant city manager positions and hire a chief financial officer instead.

“For an organization that is this sophisticated and deals with this many services and deals with the volume of tax dollars that we do, to not have a CFO in my estimation is a huge vulnerability,” Napier previously told the Star-Tribune.

The position was created despite the city’s hiring freeze.

This isn’t the first step Napier has taken to help balance the budget.

A series of budget cuts took effect this month: City employees’ wages were frozen, employees with more than 200 hours of disability time had excess hours reduced, employees are no longer permitted to convert extra disability time to vacation time or the salary equivalent at the end of each calendar year and street sweeping services were moved to the solid waste division.

These changes are expected to save the city about $1,037,000 annually, according to a memo the city manager released.

Should Wyoming tax bars, restaurants, museums and hotels to pay for tourism promotion?

BUFFALO — The Wyoming tourism industry says it wants to tax itself in order to cover the cost of promoting the Cowboy State to visitors around the country and world. But while legislators were generally supportive of the concept, the specifics may trip up the proposal.

“The devil will always be in the details,” Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said at a meeting of the Joint Revenue Committee in this quiet mountain town, itself a tourism destination, on Tuesday.

Wyoming Office of Tourism director Diane Shober presented the plan to levy a 1 percent tax across most of the leisure and hospitality industry alongside Chris Brown, executive director of the private-sector Wyoming Travel Industry Coalition.

The plan would levy the 1 percent tax on two tax-classification groups of businesses in Wyoming, covering the arts, culture, recreation and related industries as well as hotels, bars and restaurants. According to Shober, that tax would replace the roughly $13 million the tourism office currently receives from the Legislature each year and would make the agency self-sufficient during a time when the state is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit.

Brown said that the plan had broad support across the private sector based on what he described as conversations with 75 to 100 businesses across the state in recent months.

“We’re really trying to take a look at a long-term sustainable funding model for tourism,” Brown said.

Industry support

Hospitality industry members from across Wyoming spoke at the meeting, all in favor of the 1 percent tax proposal, which Shober and Brown suggested was a better option than levying a statewide lodging tax, which would need to be set around 3 percent to raise sufficient revenue.

Brown said that the lodging industry felt that it would be unfair to place the entire burden for funding tourism on hotel operators and that a 3 percent statewide lodging tax, on top of locally applied fees, was more likely to deter visitors than a smaller tax spread across several sectors of the tourism industry.

Jeff Golightly of Snow King Mountain Resort in Jackson said that his investment group had spent heavily on upgrades to the mountain and would continue to do so because of Wyoming’s growing number of visitors.

“We believe the Wyoming Office of Tourism is integral to ensuring our tourism industry continues to remain strong,” Golightly said. “I would just ask that you please consider putting the 1 percent … tax and move that forward so that the industry can tax itself.”

Shobert said that any additional funding that her office might receive through a tourism tax would be directed toward national and international marketing. The number of state employees working on tourism has remained flat for the last 15 years, at just under 25, Shober added.

She said that Wyoming needed to compete with neighboring states like Montana and Colorado, which spend nearly twice as much as Wyoming does on tourism promotion.

“The goal is to be in the same competitive positioning as where our competitors are,” she said.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, who operates a bar and restaurant near the national monument, said that he has seen a direct connection between where Wyoming directs its promotional dollars and who visits his establishment.

“When they target the Northwest, you see (license) plates of the Northwest. When they target Minnesota, you see the plates,” he said. “This isn’t a, ‘We don’t know if it works.’ We know it works.”

Concerns expressed

The committee agreed to consider a bill at its December meeting that would levy a 1 percent “tourism tax” on all hospitality-related businesses and place that money in a special fund earmarked for the tourism office while eventually reducing the amount the Legislature pays for promoting the state to zero.

But that wasn’t quite what the tourism officials had sought. Brown requested that only leisure and hospitality operators that are currently taxed would be required to pay the additional 1 percent tourism tax. Services, like ski lifts and guided trips, aren’t currently subject to sales tax in Wyoming and so would not be required to pay the tourism tax.

However, Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said that he wanted the tourism tax applied across the entire industry. If Brown wanted specific services to be exempt, Kinskey said, he should come with a list.

“Put the burden on the industry to come back and say particular subsets should be exempt,” Kinskey said. He clarified that it was reasonable for certain businesses that technically fall under the same tax code as leisure and hospitality, like freelance writing, to be exempted but that allowing clear tourism attractions like ski areas to be exempt from the proposed tax made little sense.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, expressed the same concern and voted against moving forward with the tourism tax. Case owns a bar and said that it did not make sense to tax his patrons to fund tourism while ski lift tickets would go untaxed.

Plus, Case said, many of the people who drank at his bar likely weren’t interested in promoting Wyoming as a place for outsiders to visit.

Committee co-chair Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, opposed having the tourism tax placed in a dedicated fund, calling that a “poison pill” that could sink the chances of such a bill passing the Legislature. It would be preferable for the money to be placed in the general fund and then appropriated for use by the tourism office.

Senate ‘buzzsaw’

The revenue committee was tasked with considering some form of statewide tourism tax by the Legislature’s leadership, and it remains unclear whether the bill would have a chance to pass the full body during the budget session in February, or even whether the committee will choose to sponsor it at a meeting later this year.

“You’ve seen what happens to taxes when they hit the Senate,” Kinskey said. “They hit a buzzsaw of opposition — I’m proud of being part of that buzzsaw.”

But, Kinskey said, he wanted to support the lodging tax.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, has said he will oppose almost any effort to raise taxes or expand current levies but has mentioned a tourism tax as a revenue option he might support. Wyoming faces a several-hundred-million-dollar deficit in both the general fund and education fund.

The Legislature rejected every proposed tax increase during last year’s session, eventually approving a few vehicle fee bumps as a means of increasing revenue.

Madden, who unsuccessfully proposed adjusting the cigarette tax for inflation during the last session, was supportive of the idea of such an industry tax.

“It’s really encouraging when you see an industry want to cooperate and want to work as partners on something like this,” Madden said.

School board weighs drug testing students but opts for more study, education first

The Natrona County School Board expressed wariness and asked for more time to study a parent-led proposal to begin drug testing students who participate in district activities.

“I don’t think drug testing is educational,” said board member Debbie McCullar. “My belief is that we do need a drug-education program for both staff and students. ... To just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to randomly test any of you’ and call that education, I guess I take exception to that.”

“I think we need to start with some sort of education program,” agreed fellow member Toni Billings. “The possibility of a drug test might give that kid who doesn’t have enough strength at a party to say, ‘I’m not smoking that, I’m on the track team.’ ... But I also know that my own child knows he can be randomly drug tested by his mother at any time. And as his mother, that’s my job.”

Monday night was the first time the board had discussed drug testing at a work session in several months. In April, several board members met with high school officials, parents and other district officials to discuss the proposal, brought forward by a concerned parent. But in the weeks after that meeting, board members said they had “heard nothing” from parents, potentially out of fear of having their name attached to a drug testing policy.

The proposal received a mixed response at that meeting. At least three board members said they wouldn’t support the policy. Others expressed concern that the policy would simply deter students from participating in activities, which can have a detrimental effect on student success: Studies show that students who play sports or join clubs are much more likely to graduate.

On Monday, members generally agreed that drug use was a problem among Natrona County students. But the board largely expressed more interest in a strong educational program and studying the effects of drug testing policies rather than instituting a program in the near future. Still, they did not fully rule it out.

Rachel Hedges, a vocal supporter of random drug testing who spoke at the round table discussion in April, told the board members Monday that the policy would prevent kids from trying drugs. She said she became especially concerned about drug use as she learned more about the strength of new products, like edible marijuana.

“The scary thing about it is, you can do it right in front of a coach or a teacher and you wouldn’t smell it, you wouldn’t even know they were doing it,” she said. “And these products are up to five times stronger and completely different than the marijuana that was available to us in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

There was some concern among the board about the legality of testing, but member Angela Coleman said courts have ruled that as long as the random testing is applied only to those participating in activities, it would be permissible. When parents sign a waiver allowing their child to participate, they would also agree to allow testing.

A number of other districts in the state, including Campbell and Goshen counties, have similar drug policies. Boyd Brown, the superintendent in Campbell County, told the Star-Tribune in the spring that it hadn’t really deterred student participation in activities.

Dana Howie, who chairs the board’s policy subcommittee, said there was some concern about how to pay for the testing. The district recently cut millions from its budget and will have to do so again in the coming years. But Hedges said that any amount of money the district could provide would help.

“Even if we only have $100 to put toward it ... I think as long as you guys put a policy in place that says we are going to do random drug testing, and you might get called if you’re in the participant pool, just the fact that knowing that, I think you’re doing your job,” she said.

Board member Dave Applegate said he didn’t think financial constraints were “insurmountable” and that the district could test and educate at the same time. But he said he wasn’t sure that it would ultimately be preventative.

He added that, as a libertarian, he was generally opposed to more bureaucracy and government interference.

“I’m just not sure where I’m at,” he said.

The board generally agreed with Applegate: more study, a desire to institute a drug education program, and more conversations with districts that have implemented similar policies.

Still, board member Clark Jensen said that education isn’t a magical bullet. He pointed to studies that showed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, did not work to deter students. The program had been common in schools in years past.

The board expressed a desire to alter the district’s code of conduct for students and make it tougher on substance abuse. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said district staff could have that work completed in a month or two. The research board members requested would take longer, he said, potentially several months.

Howie said the policy subcommittee would meet again in a month to discuss the issue further.

Hedges said that if there was no policy and students thought there was no risk to doing drugs, they would have no reason not to use.

“Education’s not going to cut it, y’all,” she said.