CHEYENNE — A controversial bill that would override local control on planning decisions for private schools passed out of the legislature’s Education Committee last week by a unanimous vote — after a broad-ranging amendment by a Democratic lawmaker modified a clause that would have granted special, not equal, privileges for private schools.
Sponsored by influential Sen. Eli Bebout, Senate File 49 would have completely removed county zoning law from the equation when planning the construction or expansion of private schools. The bill was apparently drafted in response to difficulties faced by the Jackson Hole Classical Academy — a small, Christian school in Teton County funded by the millionaire Friess family — in its efforts to expand within the limited borders of Jackson, a community where only 3 percent of the available land, according to testimony given to the committee on Wednesday, is public.
The issue was contentious and, to those on both sides of the issue, mired in each side’s own interpretations of the state constitution. For Bebout, the bill’s merits lay in fulfilling the goals of Article I, Section 23, citing every student’s right to an “education,” not just a public education. For the bill’s opponents, the law would have undermined state statutes giving counties authority to develop their own land use policies and would have been an affront to the idea that the best government is one operating “closest to the people.”
But the issues facing the academy were also tangible ones. Jackson, in the midst of a housing crisis, has very limited amounts of land on which to build, as reflected by an arduous review process. Though attempts were made to work with the school, local planning officials testified Wednesday that the academy could not meet the conditions of final approval after requesting a text amendment to build a larger gymnasium, among other things.
Meanwhile the academy — facing eviction from the church it has called home for the past several years — is racing time, and needs immediate approval in order to break ground in time for the 2019-2020 school year.
Others in the community, however, felt the school was not playing by the same rules as other developers in a highly competitive real estate market with a carefully considered planning process meant to maintain community character and protect the surrounding environment.
Michele Gammer, a member of a nonprofit group in Jackson called Friends of South Park, argued the bill as written would have taken away local input on a project’s site planning, not just for Jackson but for the entire state, leading to environmental or quality of life issues only locals would know about. She also said it removes locals from having a say in their economic vision for their counties — particularly Teton County.
Though she didn’t oppose the school itself, she said, Gammer added the legislation fit the definition of special interest legislation: a law tailored for one school with implications on the entire state.
These differences seemed to be bridged — at least on Wednesday — by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, who introduced a wide-ranging amendment to the bill that, rather than offer private schools complete freedom, would instead subject them to the same rules currently regulating public and charter school facilities.
“If we’re going to have standards, we should apply them uniformly,” Rothfuss said.
The amendment also stipulated that the privilege would only be extended to schools registered as nonprofit corporations in Wyoming, in order to prevent out-of-state groups from profiting off Wyoming’s students.
The amended bill passed 4-0. Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, did not vote due to a conflict of interest: a relative who attended a small private school impacted under the bill.
What might this look like?
As amended, the bill would require private schools, currently not subject to the oversight of the school facilities commission, to undergo state review before construction, which is then certified by the state and approved for construction.
“That’s the way I envision it,” Rothfuss said. “I don’t know how others will envision it. I don’t envision a process where you now have a complicated approval process where some authority has to come through and have a series of hearings and meetings. We don’t need that. We want a professional to be able to say, ‘We designed it, and we adhered to the standards.’”
This, Rothfuss argued, seemed the fairest way forward, by creating a non-politicized process around zoning for schools. Under the current system, school buildings, whether for charter schools or public schools, undergo one design process, regardless of their curriculum. Private schools, Rothfuss said, should be treated similarly.
“We don’t zone teachers,” Rothfuss said. “We zone buildings.”
“The government has to objectively and equally treat people under the law,” he added. “That’s the consideration here. If we change the language, it’s not special treatment of zoning — which was the way this was written. The amendment I proposed changes the language to basically say we treat all schools equally — public or private — from a zoning standpoint.”
The bill will now go on to the full Senate for a first reading.