CHEYENNE — A bill that would give private schools the same treatment under local zoning laws as public schools squeaked by Wednesday on its first vote in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
A controversial bill since its introduction, Senate File 49 was inspired by a local zoning dispute over a private school in Teton County. It has since evolved into a complex debate over the future of policies impacting the entire state on school choice and local control.
With five legislators absent, the bill passed committee of the whole 31-24 after a nearly hourlong debate.
If the bill gets fewer than 31 votes on its third reading, it will fail.
SF49 first arrived in the Legislature after the Jackson Hole Classical Academy — a private school financed by the influential Friess family — was denied one of the four zoning variances it needed to construct a new school building on its property in Jackson.
Viewing this as unfair treatment of his school compared to public schools, which are exempt from zoning rules that regulate private institutions, Stephen Friess found sympathetic members in the Legislature willing to sponsor the bill, not just on the pretense of equality, but for reining in counties that might have overstepped their regulatory authority. Friess’ father, Foster, is a prominent Republican donor who was the runner-up in Wyoming’s 2018 gubernatorial primary.
“There’s a problem that needs fixing,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, adding that the Legislature is the body that provides land use authority to local governments. “Let’s fix it.”
To its opponents, SF49 has inspired fears of a Pandora’s box being opened not just on the issue of local control, but on the government’s ability to interfere with private education. Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, who is a home-school parent, said that if private schools began requesting similar treatment to public schools on issues like zoning, they could soon be subject to the same oversight public schools face on issues like curriculum and accountability.
“Didn’t we already agree private instruction is different than public instruction?” she asked, naming language in state statutes that stipulates the state’s obligation to provide public education — rather than simply an “education.”
“The state has some ideas about equity; they have ideas about what the word ‘free’ means,” she added. “’The way you teach science? We have some ideas about that.’”
Though it was noted in the hearing that legislators draft bills to respond to constituent interests all the time, Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, was the only lawmaker to note the origin of the legislation resided with the concerns of one individual — Stephen Friess — but the effects would apply to the entire state.
“What we have here is a situation in which this county has voted in this fashion,” Brown said. “These commissioners have put these laws in place because their community has decided this is what they wanted. And if you don’t like it, you elect new commissioners.
“It sets a precedent that if you have a county disagree with you and you don’t like it, and you have enough money, you can come down here and lobby to get a law changed for you,” he said, in a nod to the Friess family, sitting in the gallery. “I disagree with that.”
With three legislators missing, the bill went through its second reading on the House floor on Thursday, surviving several amendments that would have further differentiated private schools’ treatment by the state from public schools.
An amendment to SF49 by Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, would have made private schools responsible for paying for the costs incurred by municipalities for constructing infrastructure attachments to those schools, including roads, bridges, streets, traffic controls, sidewalks, sewer systems, gas and electric hookups and any other improvements necessary for the development of a private school. However, that amendment failed by nine votes.
A third amendment sought to make sure that the facilities were always schools, and could not used for commercial purposes. After discussions about whether or not hosting bake sales, concerts or even weddings would cause a private school to be a commercial operation, the bill failed 33-22 on a standing vote.
The bill faces one final vote before heading to the governor’s desk.