Lawmakers Intervene In Teton County School Debate

Jan 18, 2019

A private school with some notable political ties has gotten into a fight with Teton County over whether it can build a new campus to accommodate a growing population. The Jackson Hole Classical Academy teaches a back-to-basics curriculum with a slight religious bent. After repeatedly being denied a chance to build to a scale school officials say is needed, the fight has come to Cheyenne and legislators are involved.

Teton County has some of the strongest zoning rules in the state, so the local opposition to growing the new school isn't a big shock. The school wants to build in an area that isn't zoned for such structures. But to longtime Senator Eli Bebout of Riverton, the lack of flexibility is unfair. Currently, the only thing listed in state law that doesn't fall under local planning regulations is energy development. Bebout drafted a bill that would include private schools.

"Here you have a school that has 100 to 150 children, very well educated, that wants to do what they want to do which is have a private school. And they have the money to do it, the equipment to do it, the teachers to do it, they have the students that want to be there, so why would be not in Wyoming…the equality state, want to do what's fair? I think we should," Bebout said.

So, why would Bebout get into the middle of this? It might have something to do with the fact the facility is co-founded by Steve and Polly Friess who are the son and daughter-in-law of Jackson millionaire Foster Friess who ran for governor and has become active in state politics. Teton County officials are furious about the legislation and said it takes away local control and is special interest legislation, which is unconstitutional. Teton County resident and lawyer Len Carlman made that point to a legislative committee this week.

"It is special interest legislation. It undermines the basic principle of county planning which is to look at everything. You weigh the private and community interests, you find the balances that meet local needs, you live with the results and correct and improve things over time," Carlman said.

Even Bebout admitted this looks a lot like special legislation.

"You know we're prohibited from going to Senator Landen and saying, 'Senator Landen, we're going to do this for you.' That's pretty clear and there's an issue there potentially," Bebout said.

Opponents added that it could be special legislation felt by the entire state. Slightly less than half the counties have strong zoning regulations, but Pete Obermueller who is with the Wyoming County Commissioners Association said taking away the power of the counties regarding such structures could lead to problems.

"Something could be built by anybody at any time under those very broad definitions of providing some sort of education without any sort of oversight whatsoever. That's what concerns me. There may be a way to limit that further but as it stands the language is quite broad and troubling," said Obermueller.

The County Commissioners Association will take a position on the bill next week, but they are watching how it's amended. Senator Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat from Laramie, is leading the charge on that and already made one change in committee that could be a path forward for the school with the idea that local officials would still have some oversight. He wants private school buildings to be treated the same as public schools. That means there will be an oversight by the county.

"Any school built within this equity of protection and zoning would have to conform to the same standards, the same zoning requirements, the same setbacks, the same size of property and siting that our public schools do as well," Rothfuss said.

Rothfuss and others are now working on getting the particulars of that into law. But Steve Friess of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy said he thinks it's a good step forward.

"To offer full K-12 program with everything we want to provide the students will require about 100-thousand square feet, which is about what the high school building is. We are hoping to build something a little lower profile than that," Friess said.

He added that he plans lots of landscaping to make it blend in with the current landscape and hide it from neighbors. Friess said the attitude of Teton County residents towards building projects is tough on those who want to do anything, no matter how positive.

Note: An earlier version of this story referred to Foster Friess as a billionaire. It has been corrected.