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After its sudden closure last year, challenges remain in relaunching the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy

Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy cannon firing
Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire
/
Wyoming National Guard
Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy Color Guard Club coordinator, David Husted (left), instructs WCCA Cadet Brendan Diede (right) on proper form for firing the ceremonial cannon at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center prior to a flag raising ceremony, Sept. 6, 2018. Plans to create a new challenge academy in Wyoming face several major obstacles.

The Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy (WCCA) was an alternative education program for non-traditional learners between the ages of 16-18. It closed suddenly in mid-September 2022 affecting 60 cadets who were in the middle of their course of instruction at Camp Guernsey. There are 38 programs like it across the country, including in Puerto Rico, where students can either complete a GED as part of the program or complete credit recovery if they've fallen behind academically in high school. Before its closure, the WCCA graduated a total of 1,399 cadets.

Since then, there have been discussions between the Wyoming Military Department and the Wyoming legislature to try to relaunch the program at another location in Wyoming. But challenges remain before that can become a possibility.

“The first thing is staffing. That's the number one challenge that you see, and I think that that was a portion of what you saw when the governor made the choice to go ahead and close it down,” said state Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), House chairman of the legislature’s joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee.

“[It’s] not only staffing, we certainly still face that issue, but we also have to find a location that would be suitable for this program.”

The program was housed at Camp Guernsey, a Wyoming National Guard facility, since its inception in January 2006. Brown said this was largely due to the base having existing barracks and dining facilities for the cadets. The program was discontinued in its entirety, which means that it would have to be reestablished from the ground up if it were to be reestablished. Guernsey is located in Platte County with a population of a little over 1,100. Wyoming National Guard officials said because of Guernsey’s limited workforce availability they would rather have the academy somewhere else in a larger community that has more workforce opportunities.

An inspection conducted last summer also drew the ire of the legislature after the program received an overall unsatisfactory rating, citing health, operational, performance, resource management compliance and financial performance ratings, among others, by the National Guard Bureau, exposing the program to legal liabilities, per the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Finding new facilities that fit the requirements of a challenge program, such as sleeping and dining facilities, also must be considered in a new host community. At least 48 staff are required to run the program.

Brown said launching a new program would be a “rigorous process.” Under the previous WCCA funding model, the federal government paid 75 percent of the costs, with the state covering the other 25 percent. Federal National Guard officials reworked challenge academy programs since the WCCA began in 2006. This means there are new requirements for the state to meet if it wants to start another one.

“Since the program has been reestablished over the past 10, 15 years at the National Guard Bureau level, they now have a new process that's in place, and we do not qualify as it stands with the amount of high school dropouts [not enough] that we would need to classify,” Brown said. “That doesn't mean we couldn't apply for a waiver, and we do think that we would be able to get that waiver, certainly with our small population. But there are certainly many other challenges that face us right now.”

Brown said no matter where they relocate the academy, staffing will still be a problem. As a state job there’s competition from the private sector and other better paying jobs, such as those often found in the energy industry.

“No matter the location that you go to, and you choose to open up this academy, I think you're still going to face the problems of getting employees to come work for this particular program regardless of the fact that it is a state employee job and you would have good benefits and all those things. I just think that it's a very difficult issue,” he said.

An upcoming legislative committee of the Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee will deal with authorizing a draft bill for funding a new program. If funds are allocated, it would allow Wyoming students to continue to participate in challenge programs in other states. When the WCCA was shuttered, some cadets elected to transfer to similar programs elsewhere, including those in Idaho, Montana, and California.

Another draft bill will look at locations to host a new program. However, the fiscal realities of the program could present challenges to creating a new one.

“At this point, one of the biggest issues that I think we need to really focus on in my opinion is this particular program was on the legislative chopping block upwards of five or six years ago during budget cuts,” Brown said. “I think there has to be a solution brought forward that's going to ensure that if we put this out there, it's not going to be the first thing on the chopping block the next time we face a structural deficit with our money, and I want to make sure that we don't leave our children high and dry.”

A legislative appropriation could stand up a new program effective immediately if an application were to be approved, though Brown said this is unlikely. He doesn’t believe that the issue of starting a new challenge academy will be solved this year, and if a new program is to be established, could possibly get off the ground in late 2024. Funding is currently available for students to be sent to programs elsewhere, though this is conditional on having another program accept them as well as having other parameters. It will have to be reappropriated at the next budget session to be able to continue the transferring of cadets.

“I think that there's always going to be an interest, I just am not sure whether or not that interest will pass muster when it comes to the legislature as to whether or not it's worth the millions of dollars that we were dedicating to it to continue to fund such a small portion of our of our group in the state of Wyoming,” he said. “That's a portion of where we're going to see the ability for us to send these kids out of state…there's still going to be that option. It just may not be here in Wyoming at this point.”

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.

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