Sep. 17—CHEYENNE — The Laramie County School District 1 at-large trustees race is hotly contested, as five candidates vie for one seat on the board.
They make up a third of the overall candidates campaigning in the school district's four separate races. This is even after Lilia Olejnik and Kathy Russell dropped out of the at-large race at the start of the month. Three candidates remain on each ballot for Areas 1 and 2, and four are competing in Area 3. This is the first time three seats on the school board have been open to candidates from specific areas, not the district as a whole.
Incumbents Rich Wiederspahn and Christy Klaassen are running for re-election, but this time as candidates in Areas 2 and 3, respectively.
At-large contenders will face a former LCSD1 trustee on Nov. 8. Hank Bailey last served as chairman of the board of trustees in 2014, and didn't file for re-election at that time. Bailey didn't respond to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's email inquiries for an interview.
The other four candidates are taking their first steps to try to become an LCSD1 trustee, each bringing their own unique backgrounds.
Rene Hinkle, 57, has been an obstetrician-gynecologist physician in Cheyenne for 24 years.
She opened her own women's clinic in 2004, at which she has delivered more than 2,000 babies.
She has past experience as a member of the Wyoming Board of Medicine, as physician leader at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center and has been on other community boards involved with children.
She told the WTE education has always been an important part of her life, not only as a medical student, but as a parent. She moved to Wyoming for her children to attend a successful public education system, which she believes builds community.
Now, she hopes to be involved as a trustee because she said she has seen a shift in recent years away from student achievement. She wants to refocus and put all the efforts of the board into providing the best education for every student, from access to advanced classes to special education resources. Hinkle said she wants to make sure teachers are well supported, properly trained and certified. She wants to advocate for the district to get the funding it needs from the Wyoming Legislature.
She said she wants to stop entertaining discussions on national agenda items, such as book banning or critical race theory, which she said isn't present in this local system.
"The board members are bringing the national political agenda into the board and into the classroom, and we need to get politics out," she said. "We are a nonpartisan board, we're not supposed to deal with any kind of political issues, and we just need to get back to that."
Joe Plowman, 61, decided to run for the at-large trustee seat specifically because of conversations in Cheyenne regarding book banning. He said if residents are going to be on a school board, they shouldn't be removing books from library shelves and restricting what can be taught.
He said by taking away options for students, this insinuates parents don't know how to take care of their kids. Plowman said parents can speak with librarians and request a student not access certain materials, or parents can browse a library with a child.
"It's a place to learn," he said. "How are these kids going to be prepared for the world when you're censoring what they can read?"
Plowman is a retiree who has lived here for more than two decades. Holding a seat on the board would be his first introduction to the school system and its process, which he hopes to learn by experience. He said he wants to mitigate personal agendas among trustees, and get elementary school sports back into LCSD1.
Meg Varhalmi, 50, is a scientist and writer who wants to make sure that every school is a safe place for students and encourages education, acceptance and equality.
The Seattle native has lived in Cheyenne for eight years, and has children who attend LCSD1 schools. She said she is passionate about accessibility, no matter a person's race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities or mobility challenges.
"My campaign is really about education, which means learning new ideas, and being exposed to new cultures and ideas," she said. "And recognizing that history plays a role in all our lives, including the ugly parts, which if we don't learn about, we can't fix."
She decided to run because after attending board meetings. She said she wanted members who were reasonable, willing to stand up for what they believed in, but also willing to hear other perspectives.
Although Varhalmi doesn't have any major criticisms of the board, she said she wanted to get involved because there are stakeholders who want to make changes she disagrees with.
The only changes she would consider are encouraging teaching "civil duty, as well as community central ideals," and making further investments in safety. She said following the deaths of multiple students this year in traffic incidents, she is concerned the district doesn't have crossing guards at all schools.
Laramie County School District 2 special education teacher Jennifer Pasqua, 43, said she wants to provide an educator's perspective on the LCSD1 board.
She has lived in Wyoming for close to 30 years, and in Cheyenne for nearly two decades. Pasqua previously worked for LCSD1 and was the president of the Cheyenne Teachers Education Association.
"I'm tired of watching teachers be exhausted and leave our profession, and I think one way that I can make the biggest difference in our district would be to amplify that teacher voice," she told the WTE.
She noted she is a teacher who wants residents to be well-educated, and she also is a parent.
She would first survey teachers to find their largest concerns in the district, and speak with students to get a snapshot of their daily lives. She said when she talks with her son, who is a freshman at East High School, she is sure there is valuable information the school board isn't aware of.
She wants to reevaluate how the district spends its money, because she is concerned there is too much emphasis on new technology or curriculums that can lead to teacher burnout. She said she wants more money to go toward teacher salaries and social/emotional resources.
Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.