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State superintendent candidates shared their views in a forum. Here are some takeaways.

From the Election 2022: Complete coverage series
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Superintendent Forum

Candidates for Wyoming superintendent of public instruction gather for a candidate forum on Thursday in Casper. The event was hosted by the Boys & Girls Club.

Community members got to hear from Republican candidates for the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction position in an election forum in Casper on Thursday.

The forum, hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Wyoming and Wyoming PBS, allowed the public and the facilitators to ask the candidates questions and get a better idea of what K-12 education would look like under their leadership.

Wyoming superintendents head the state’s education department and sit on several state boards. They’re also non-voting members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees, the Wyoming Community College Commission and the School Facilities Commission.

Candidates Brian Schroeder, Megan Degenfelder, Jennifer Zerba and Thomas Kelly attended the forum. Another candidate, Robert White, did not come.

Schroeder is Wyoming’s current superintendent. He has worked as a teacher and administrator in private schools in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming and as a family and youth counselor. Gov. Mark Gordon appointed him in January after former state superintendent Jillian Balow left the job to take a similar role in Virginia. His unelected term ends in January.

Degenfelder, a Casper native, served as the Wyoming Department of Education’s chief policy officer under Balow and is currently the government and regulatory affairs manager for Morningstar Partners Oil & Gas.

Zerba is a Natrona County School District substitute teacher and cosmetologist. She has degrees in business administration and is currently getting a doctorate of education in learning, design and technology at UW.

Kelly chairs the political and military science department at the American Military University and has taught at middle schools, community colleges and universities in the Midwest and Mountain West regions.

White is an underground trona miner who lives in Rock Springs. He was formerly an amphibious assault vehicle crew chief and a corporal in the Marine Corps.

Former Wyoming PBS Senior Public Affairs Producer Craig Blumenshine and current Wyoming PBS Senior Public Affairs Producer Steve Peck facilitated the forum and fielded questions from the public. Here are the participants’ answers to some of the questions from the forum:

Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country. Why is that, and what will your leadership do about it?

“I understand that the status quo, knee jerk responses is more programs and more funding through the public schools,” Kelly said. “While this is a serious issue, this is not necessarily for the public schools to take on issues of mental health as the primary mission of public instruction.”

Zerba said she’s personally had students come up to her and say they were considering suicide.

“As [educators], we get that quite frequently,” she said, adding that she directs those students to resources but sometimes doesn’t know how much those kids are supported.

Zerba said she wants to improve messaging around the mental health resources that are already available in schools so students know they are “valued and appreciated.”

Schroeder worked with “troubled and traumatized” kids for more than 14 years.

“It usually always boils down to some severe disconnect, breakdown of the family structure,” he said of poor mental health among students. “I also think what’s feeding into this sense of disconnect, and detachment is the social media phenomenon.”

Degenfelder said that dealing with the mental health crisis is “absolutely the role of the state superintendent.”

“If our kids aren’t healthy, either physically or mentally, they cannot learn to read and write, we cannot expect increased outcomes and performance in the classroom if they’re struggling.”

She said she would consider options to address mental health such as increasing suicide prevention training for school staff, looking into virtual mental health care systems for students and partnering with after school programs so kids can get support after school hours.

What do you think about the Wyoming Teacher Apprenticeship Program?

This fall, the Wyoming Department of Education and the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board are launching a pilot teacher apprenticeship program in three school districts. The apprenticeship is based off a program in Tennessee, which allows people to get a teaching license in three years for free through hands-on experience. The apprenticeship is meant to help turn around the state’s teacher shortage crisis.

Schroeder, as the current superintendent, is helping to move along the initiative. He said that the apprenticeship is a “response to the needs of our teacher, the cries of our teachers.”

Degenfelder is in favor of the new program.

“As with any issue, I am going to consider any option we’ve got,” Degenfelder said.

She added that she’d like to also “get around the state” and find out what is keeping some teachers from continuing in the profession and why fewer people are deciding to become teachers.

But Zerba and Kelly are not in favor of the new apprenticeship program. Although they agreed with the idea of making it easier to get qualified teachers into the classroom, they both felt it unnecessary to spend money on a whole new program to do that.

Zerba has said in a past interview with the Star-Tribune that she’d rather leverage resources that Wyoming already has, like community and technical colleges as well as scholarships and grants, to make it easier for people to become teachers.

“Why are we spending all this time and money on something when we already have it available?” Zerba questioned.

Should we add COVID-19 vaccines to the required list of vaccines for kids in public schools?

Degenfelder, Schroeder and Kelly agreed that the decision to have a child get a COVID vaccine should be up to parents.

“We just don’t have enough information on this,” Degenfelder said of COVID vaccines. “We’re not decades and decades into it like some of our vaccines.”

Zerba noted, however, that parents and guardians can use a waiver to have their child be exempted from a vaccine requirement.

“I believe that we can exercise that and still be able to implement mandatory vaccines, because the parents will have control,” she said.

Do you think Riverton Middle School’s cell phone ban was a good idea?

Last week, Riverton Middle School banned cell phone use in classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and locker rooms. Students can now only use their phones during recess or lunch, or for an emergency.

Kelly and Schroeder said they thought the ban was a good idea, although both noted that such a decision would be up to local school boards.

“I think any kind of boundaries, strong boundaries, for kids is a good idea,” Schroeder said. “Ultimately, what’s behind that is concern about the kids, and this cell phone, social media world is gobbling them up.”

Degenfelder and Zerba disagreed with the decision.

“We have to teach our kids best practices and how to deal with the world of technology, because it’s not going away,” Degenfelder said. “To just say stay off social media, don’t use your cell phone, that’s not going to resonate with kids.”

Zerba said the matter should be something that’s talked about with parents rather than mandated by school boards.

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