Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

GOP Election Forum tackles CRT, trans-athletes, teacher shortages

JACKSON — Three GOP candidates for Wyoming superintendent of public instruction and one for secretary of state discussed topics including critical race theory and statewide teacher shortages during a forum Tuesday hosted by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Lunch Club.

Superintendent of public instruction hopefuls Thomas Kelly, Megan Degenfelder and Jennifer Zerba were joined by secretary of state candidate Tara Nethercott at The Lodge at Jackson Hole conference center.

Nethercott, a state senator, was the only one of the three Republican candidates for secretary of state to participate in Tuesday’s forum.

She has roots in Teton County and was elected to the Wyoming Legislature as a Laramie County senator in 2016.

She said her focus is to ensure that Wyoming continues to hold free and fair elections and that “Western values continue here in our state.”

“Nothing is more damaging to our country than assuming elections are not secure,” she said Tuesday.

Nethercott explained that Wyoming historically has not used ballot boxes. However, due to the pandemic, nine counties, including Teton, introduced them. Because the ballot boxes were located inside courthouses or on county properties, overseen by law enforcement, they were reliable and secure, she said.

Superintendent of public instruction candidate Kelly, chairman of the political and military science department at the American Military University, moved to Wyoming in 2019 from Illinois, where he felt the government’s involvement in life and education had grown too great.

As a teacher himself, Kelly said he believes that educators, parents and community members “have more intellectual firepower than anyone in state government” and should be able to make their own decisions when it comes to schools. If elected, he would be willing to reject federal dollars to push out government influence over fiduciary management and teaching curricula.

As a businesswoman in the oil and gas sector, Degenfelder is interested in uniting schools with private businesses to create a pipeline for jobs for fresh graduates.

“All too often, we’re told kids are leaving the state,” she said.

As a sixth-generation Wyomingite and former executive at the Wyoming Department of Education, Degenfelder said she’s determined to retain state residents by finding more funding for school systems.

Zerba, a Wyoming native and educator, said she knows how decisions at the top “affect the real people.” She said she is committed to ensuring that money from the state and federal government is not sent just to well-resourced schools.

The hot-button education issue of critical race theory — the examination of race and its legal ramifications in the U.S. — also came up Tuesday.

“We shouldn’t be tying the hands of what teachers are allowed to talk about in the classroom,” Kelly said.

He and Zerba indicated that they don’t like the idea of censorship in the classroom on a state and federal level but are comfortable with communities making decisions about what is appropriate for schools to discuss.

Degenfelder opposes teaching critical race theory in the classroom.

“Students are there to learn reading, writing and math,” she said.

The discussion also extended to whether transgender students should be allowed to play sports on teams that do not reflect their classified gender at birth.

Degenfelder said that as a coach of the women’s rugby team at the University of Wyoming, she is committed to ensuring that her players are safe on the field. That’s why, she said, she cannot support trans athletes. Kelly does not, either.

“I’m 6 foot 9 inches,” he said. “Even if you suppress me with testosterone, at some point biological reality has to step in.”

Zerba said she is willing to let individual districts and schools determine what is fair.

The candidates agreed that teachers need to be better compensated and that early childhood education matters. They also support charter schools and believe that families should be able to choose the kind of education their children receive.

“Our biggest obstacle is introducing the free market into compensation for educators,” Kelly said. “With seniority pay scales, the best teachers are not paid the best.”

Brian Schroeder, the current Wyoming superintendent of public instruction, did not attend the forum.

He was appointed to the position by Gov. Mark Gordon in January and is a likely top seed, since Wyoming has a history of appointees winning elections.

Robert White III is also on the GOP primary ballot for state superintendent.

The primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 16.

This story was published on July 22, 2022.