Community members heard from Republican candidates for Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction at an election forum in Casper on Thursday.
The forum, hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Wyoming and Wyoming PBS, allowed the audience and hosts to ask contestants questions and get a better idea of what K-12 education would look like under their direction.
Candidates for the Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction will participate in a public election forum in Casper on Thursday. The forum will allow community members and facilitators to ask questions of the contestants.
Wyoming superintendents lead the state’s Department of Education and serve on several state boards. They are also nonvoting members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees, the Wyoming Community College Commission, and the School Facilities Commission.
Candidates Brian Schroeder, Megan Degenfelder, Jennifer Zerba and Thomas Kelly attended the forum. Another candidate, Robert White, did not come.
Schroeder is the current superintendent of Wyoming. He has worked as a teacher and administrator in private schools in California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming and as a family and youth counselor. Gov. Mark Gordon appointed him in January after former state superintendent Jillian Balow stepped down to take on a similar role in Virginia. His unelected term ends in January.
Degenfelder, a Casper native, served as director of policy for the Wyoming Department of Education under Balow and is currently head of government and regulatory affairs for Morningstar Partners Oil & Gas.
Gov. Mark Gordon selected Brian Schroeder, who runs a private Christian school in Cody, as the new superintendent of public schools on Thursday.
Zerba is a substitute teacher and cosmetologist with the Natrona County School District. She has a degree in business administration and is currently completing a doctorate in education in learning, design and technology at UW.
Kelly chairs the Department of Political and Military Science at American Military University and has taught at colleges, community colleges, and universities in the Midwest and Mountain West regions.
White is an underground miner from trona who lives in Rock Springs. He was previously a crew chief of an amphibious assault vehicle and a corporal in the Marine Corps.
Three Republicans and one Democrat are vying for the position of state superintendent of public instruction.
Former Wyoming PBS Senior Public Affairs Producer Craig Blumenshine and current Wyoming PBS Senior Public Affairs Producer Steve Peck moderated the forum and answered questions from the audience. Here are the responses of participants to some of the forum questions:
Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country. Why is that, and what will your leaders do about it?
“I understand that the status quo, the knee-jerk responses, is more programs and more funding through public schools,” Kelly said. “Although this is a serious problem, it is not necessarily for public schools to take charge of mental health problems as a primary mission of public education.”
Zerba said she personally had students approach her and tell her they were considering suicide.
“As [educators]we get that pretty frequently,” she said, adding that she refers these students to resources, but sometimes she doesn’t know how well these kids are being supported.
Zerba said she wanted to improve messaging about mental health resources already available in schools so students know they are “valued and appreciated.”
Schroeder has worked with “troubled and traumatized” children for over 14 years.
“It usually always comes down to a severe disconnect, a breakdown in the family structure,” he said of the students’ poor mental health. “I also think what fuels this sense of disconnect and detachment is the social media phenomenon.”
Degenfelder said dealing with the mental health crisis is “absolutely the role of the superintendent of the state.”
“If our children are not in good health, physically or mentally, they cannot learn to read and write, we cannot expect better results and performance in class if they have difficulties.”
She said she would consider options to address mental health, such as increasing suicide prevention training for school staff, reviewing virtual mental health care systems for students, and partnering with after-school programs so children can get support after school hours.
A former top official with the Wyoming Department of Education announced Thursday that she will be running for the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
What do you think of the Wyoming Teacher Apprenticeship Program?
This fall, the Wyoming Department of Education and the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board are launching a teacher apprenticeship pilot program in three school districts. The apprenticeship is based on a Tennessee curriculum, which allows people to earn a teaching license for free in three years through hands-on experience. The apprenticeship is intended to help reverse the state’s teacher shortage crisis.
Schroeder, as current superintendent, helps move the initiative forward. He said that learning is a “response to the needs of our teacher, to the cries of our teachers”.
Degenfelder is supportive of the new program.
“As with any issue, I will consider all the options we have,” Degenfelder said.
She added that she would also like to “bypass the state” and find out what prevents some teachers from continuing in the profession and why fewer people decide to become teachers.
But Zerba and Kelly are not in favor of the new apprenticeship program. Although they agreed with the idea of making it easier to bring qualified teachers into classrooms, they both felt that it was not necessary to spend money on a brand new program to achieve this.
Zerba said in a previous interview with the Star-Tribune that she would rather leverage the resources Wyoming already has, like community and technical colleges as well as scholarships and grants, to make it easier for people to become teachers.
“Why are we spending all this time and money on something when we already have it available? asked Zerba.
Republican Schools Superintendent candidate Jennifer Zerba decided to join the race at the last minute because she was “alarmed to see some of the issues and topics” that other candidates were running on.
Should we add COVID-19 vaccines to the required list of vaccines for children in public schools?
Degenfelder, Schroeder and Kelly agreed that the decision to have a child vaccinated against COVID should rest with the parents.
“We just don’t have enough information about it,” Degenfelder said of COVID vaccines. “We haven’t been around for decades and decades like some of our vaccines.”
Zerba noted, however, that parents and guardians can use a waiver to have their child exempt from a vaccine requirement.
“I believe we can exercise that and still be able to implement mandatory vaccines because parents will be in control,” she said.
Do you think Riverton Middle School’s cellphone ban was a good idea?
Last week, Riverton Middle School banned cellphone use in classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and locker rooms. Students can now only use their phones during recess or lunch, or in an emergency.
Kelly and Schroeder said they thought the ban was a good idea, although both noted that such a decision would be up to local school boards.
“I think any kind of boundaries, strong boundaries, for kids is a good idea,” Schroeder said. “At the end of the day, what’s behind this is concern for children, and this cell phone, the world of social media is engulfing them.”
The top Wyoming schools official said the state “will not comply” with federal requirements to change non-discrimination policies and called on the state to reject federal money tied to meal programs.
Degenfelder and Zerba disagreed with the decision.
“We need to teach our kids about best practices and how to handle the tech world because it’s not going away,” Degenfelder said. “To just say stay off social media, don’t use your cell phone, it won’t resonate with kids.”
Zerba said the matter should be discussed with parents rather than mandated by school boards.