CHEYENNE – East and South triad trustee candidates in Laramie County School District 1 said they are ready to bring their constituents’ voices to the table.
Five out of the six candidates running in Area 1 and Area 2 told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle their plans this week, if elected, and expressed their passion for the elected, unpaid position. There are three areas for candidates to specifically run and campaign within their boundaries, as well as an LCSD1 at-large race. The four eventual winners will join the local school board in January.
This is the first time seats have been allocated to specific geographic areas within the school district, as opposed to all of them being at-large, which candidates in the South triad said was especially important to them.
“I am running as a south-sider for life. I believe wholeheartedly that with the south side and the triad, there’s a large disparity at the district level, and even the treatment of the south side and its schools,” said Shelly Downham, parent and trustee candidate in Area 1. “I want to represent South triad issues, real issues, and not just political stances.”
Twenty candidates filed before the filing period ended on Aug. 29 for the four seats available, and five candidates have already dropped out. Michelle Tonacchio, Peter Zip III and Diane Beffert withdrew from the Area 3 race, where incumbent LCSD1 Trustee Christy Klaassen is running. Lilia Olejnik and Kathy Russell dropped out of the LCSD1 at-large race.
Social media posts from Facebook revealed that Tonacchio withdrew from the race in Area 3 to try to keep from splitting votes for conservative candidates in the Central triad. She posted on Facebook in the “Moms for Liberty – Laramie County, WY” group, asking for advice about backing out of the race to make sure candidate Todd Reynolds was defeated, because Klaassen had no plans to.
“I’m curious everyone’s thoughts on whether they can’t stand another term with her, or if it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she was the ‘conservative’ candidate for Central,” Tonacchio wrote regarding Klaassen, before eventually withdrawing on Tuesday.
Candidates in LCSD1 Area 1 will not have to face an incumbent, unlike those in Areas 2 and 3. Downham, Susan Edgerton and Joseph Ramirez are all new contenders for a seat on the school board.
Downham, 46, has been a Cheyenne resident since 2002, and an advocate for representation of specific areas on the school board for more than six years. She told the WTE she played an instrumental part in the change by starting a petition, presenting to the school board and attending meetings that led to the change.
Her involvement in LCSD1 goes beyond advocacy, though. She said she has been involved at every level a parent can be for the past two decades, from volunteering with teachers, staff and coaches to fundraising for schools. She has three children who have gone through South triad schools, and she said her goals include uniting the triads and promoting equality.
A priority if she were elected is to address the district’s boundary waivers policy. She said it is negatively affecting the south, because kids leave instead of staying and building a positive environment. Downham said it has caused issues among students and families, and “we’re too small of a town to have those feelings going around.”
She also wants to find a balance for parents and teachers between making choices for their student’s education and being able to trust that educators have students’ best interests at heart. She said the culture has shifted regarding believing teachers and respecting what they taught, and there has to be a middle ground.
Ramirez, 70, is another passionate advocate for representation in the South triad. Although he has lived in Cheyenne his entire life and worked for state education and labor agencies, he has spent the last 25 years in the South triad. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a seat in the Wyoming Legislature, and managed campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.
His inspiration for running in the Area 1 race came from an incident at McCormick Junior High in 2018. He said there were students who were creating a racist and homophobic environment, and he believes there are still similar issues ongoing in the district that he hopes to alleviate. Ramirez also shared his concerns about book banning and negative attitudes toward teachers.
“I still hear stories of bullying and harassment against both of those groups (LGBTQ+ and students of color), plus students with disabilities,” he said. “We’ve got to cut that off at the neck. No way can we have that kind of disrespect for any students. All students need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
He noted that he plans to provide all his information in both Spanish and English, because he said there is a large number of Spanish speakers who deserve to understand. He said students shouldn’t be put in a position where they need to be translators for their guardians, because it doesn’t promote a good learning environment.
“That’s part of the thing that I’m going to be doing is trying to reach out to that group and let them know that they have a bilingual voice for the seat,” he said.
The third candidate in the Area 1 race is Edgerton, 57, who has been included in a “vote conservative” campaign on social media. She has joined arms with trustee candidates Hank Bailey, Brooke Humphrey and Klaassen, and has spoken out at LCSD1 meetings in the past in attempts to change the library book checkout policy and remove a masking requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edgerton came to Cheyenne in 2001 with her family due to the military, and they decided to put down roots. She said her children have graduated from schools in LCSD1. Her background is in early childhood development, and she has worked both as a licensed day-care provider and in military child development centers.
Her key platform components are promoting strong academic basics, support for teachers in the classroom through parent involvement, equal opportunity and transparency. She is an advocate for making sure students are graduation-ready, but in a way that prepares them for adulthood, such as teaching personal finance and knowing how to rent an apartment.
Edgerton said she has pride for the South triad, and she wants to provide the best representation as someone who understands constituents’ needs and concerns. She said she has been unhappy in recent years with stakeholder speech being stifled.
“I want to make sure that everyone gets to participate, that everyone has a voice,” she said.
Brooke Humphrey and Maurina Venturelli are challengers to incumbent Rich Wiederspahn in the LCSD1 Area 2 race. Wiederspahn didn’t respond to the WTE’s interview inquiries.
The youngest candidate campaigning in Area 2 is Humphrey, who is a 26-year-old mom that was born and raised in Cheyenne. She left southeast Wyoming for a few years to pursue ministry training in California and abroad, before returning home to start a business with her husband. Her kids aren’t old enough to attend public school yet, but she said she wants to help bring about change in the school district before they are enroll.
“Cheyenne, it’s our home, it’s where our kids will grow up, and I’m just trying to invest in the community,” she said. “Part of how I feel I’m supposed to do that is on the school board.”
Humphrey said she wants to focus on protecting parents’ rights, ensuring LCSD1 is a place that teachers can be proud to work in, promoting transparency and getting back to the basics of education. She said it is important that children are supported in their physical, emotional and intellectual development.
“It’s extremely important for us to be keeping the money closest to the students, and that is in our classrooms,” she said. “Whether it’s making sure that our buildings are sufficient and are comfortable for teachers and students, or making sure that our teachers have enough finances and resources to prep their classroom for the year and for their students – we can move resources from upper admin, down into the classrooms with the students, to better educate our kids.”
Her criticisms of the board in recent years are based on the decision to quit funding elementary school sports, taking away the parents’ right to choose whether to mask their student and changing the public comment policy at trustees meetings. She said trustees need to make more decisions that are best for students in the district.
Venturelli, 40, is a newer resident in Cheyenne, but she said her roots in Montana give her an understanding of the region. She was also influenced by her mother, who was a history teacher until retirement and taught her the impact an educator can have on a child. It was one of the reasons she was inspired to run after she started attending school board meetings in 2020.
She also decided to campaign for a seat in Area 2 because she wants to have a better relationship with students and administrators, encourage the development of a modern public education to meet the needs of all kids and bring a unique style of leadership to the board. Venturelli said she hopes to create a student council and build less invasive mental health programs in the district.
“When I talk to kids, in particular to high school kids, their issues are so far from what the adults are talking about. It’s really incredible,” she said. “We don’t give them enough credit. These kids are smart, and they know what interferes with their learning and what doesn’t. And, as adults, we are completely disconnected from that.”
The general election takes place on Nov. 8. Absentee and early in-person voting begins Sept. 23.