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Classical Academy bill becomes law without Gordon’s signature

March 16, 2019

A bill eliminating county zoning authority over private schools will become law without Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature.

“I believe this bill is flawed, and so I will not sign it,” Gordon wrote in a letter, “but, as I have done with other bills, I will take this opportunity to recommend that the Legislature and local governments continue to work to find a better way to sort out the types of impasses that begat this legislation closer to home.”

The bill’s passage means instead of following county planning rules, private schools only need to “substantially” conform to state standards for public schools. The law goes into effect immediately.

In his letter, the governor said the new law “sets an unfortunate precedent.”

The bill, Senate File 49, surfaced after the Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s plan to build a new private school campus in South Park ran into regulatory hurdles with the county.

Representatives of the Christian school, led by Steve and Polly Friess, said they sought legislative relief because Teton County’s planning process proved too onerous after they encountered various “roadblocks” over several years, including a legal challenge from neighbors opposed to the school site.

Teton County commissioners in January rejected a request to expand maximum building size countywide to allow for a gym and auditorium. However, no formal application to build a new school was ever filed or voted upon.

Under the new law, the Classical Academy won’t be subject to Teton County zoning requirements as it moves forward with a new school.

At the Legislature, proponents of the bill argued that private schools and public schools should be treated the same, and the state should provide for school choice. Critics said zoning for private schools is best left to local county governments.

Teton County’s representatives — Reps. Mike Yin and Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, and Rep. Jim Roscoe, I-Teton/Sublette/Lincoln — voted against the bill. Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, co-sponsored the bill and voted for it.

Gordon said his office received more correspondence about Senate File 49 than any other bill during the session. While he said “there’s no denying” that the bill erodes local control from all counties in Wyoming, the governor also said the bill brings up philosophical questions about local control, listing off some “precariously weighty questions which require balance.”

“Is the logic that the Legislature is empowered to dictate to local government more sanguine than the idea that Washington, D.C., can apply the same logic to our state?” he asked. “Is it appropriate for any individual regardless of means to opt for the nuclear option of Legislative fiat when local remedies don’t work?”

At the same time, Gordon posited: “How do individual property rights play against regulations which some may feel are overzealous?”

Under Wyoming law, a bill becomes law even if the governor doesn’t sign it. To block a bill, the governor must veto it. Gordon’s letter, explaining his decision to let the bill become law without his signature offered more questions than answers.

“But what right does a local community have to differentiate between like institutions such as a school?” he asked. “Does the fact that one is a public institution and the other a private one really matter if their requirements and placements are substantially similar?”

Gordon said he was not avoiding making a decision. The bill’s final version, he concluded, was “vastly less offensive” to local control than the original bill, which would have set no standards for private schools instead of limiting them to similar standards as public schools.

Read the governor’s letter in full at JHNewsAndGuide.com.