CHEYENNE — In a records-request fight between two residents and the Wyoming Department of Education, initial documents show the state spent taxpayer dollars on a private anti-sexualization event hosted by the former state superintendent.
Brian Schroeder was appointed as the state superintendent of public instruction by Gov. Mark Gordon in January 2022 to replace Jillian Balow after she left to lead the Virginia Department of Education. He received statewide attention in his year of public service for his opinions on critical race theory, charter schools, transgender athletes and the alleged sexualization of children in public schools.
He held a press conference in October called “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children” to address what he described as a critical issue. He requested the presence of the public and invited parents, lawmakers and No Left Turn in Education officials to speak at the event.
Schroeder wrote in a letter to Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, in mid-October that there would be a focus on protecting the innocence of children and supporting parental authority, and the laws and policies “that coincide and reinforce the same.”
It was originally scheduled for Oct. 25, 2022, in the auditorium of the Emerson Building, and stakeholders immediately questioned whether the event was state-sponsored and funded by the WDE.
George Powers and Rodger McDaniel were two residents in search of concrete answers before the press conference took place, and would communicate back and forth with the state agency for months after the event before filing a public records lawsuit at the beginning of March.
They discovered in part what was already suspected through documents provided in February.
An executive assistant at the WDE was directed by Schroeder to purchase flights and make hotel reservations for speakers at the event, despite the state agency making statements later that it was not backing the event with funds.
“No state funds will be used in connection with this event,” Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Chad Auer wrote in a statement sent to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Oct. 20. “The final venue for the press conference is yet to be determined. The superintendent wants the focus of the discussion to be on the issue of parental authority and standing up against the sexualization of Wyoming’s children. He does not want the discussion to be distracted by a debate about the proper role of the agency, or use of taxpayer funds/agency resources.
“By separating Schroeder’s event from the agency, I believe we have arrived at the proper balance.”
The event was hosted at Cheyenne Little America Hotel and Resort instead of a state building, but the money had already been spent and would continue to be.
The individual procurement card log for executive assistant Penny Rodriguez showed purchases for three flights on Oct. 13. The first purchase was a United Airlines flight for Andrew Wells in the amount of $777.20, and then two Southwest Airlines flights costing $657.96 and $648.96 were booked for Elana Fishbein and Melissa Jackson.
All three individuals were speakers at the press conference.
“He provided me with the contact information for the individuals and requested that I purchase airline tickets and make hotel reservations,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter dated Oct. 25 about the former state superintendent. “I confirmed this information with Trent Carroll, and I was able to find affordable flights and hotel accommodations.”
She continued that Schroeder let her know that he was considering not using state funds anymore to pay for some or all of the travel expenses, and she wrote that she advised him to speak with Carroll regarding the details. Carroll is currently the chief operations officer for the department.
“Superintendent Schroeder has now confirmed that he does not want to use state funds for this event, and he will provide the WDE reimbursement for the airplane tickets that were charged on my phantom card on 10/13/22,” she concluded.
An email was sent the day before by accounting analyst Miranda Aumack to Carroll, also expressing doubt about how to move forward. She wrote that she had a budgeting question for him, since “this has gotten a bit too political for me to think that I’ve made the correct decision on any of it lol!”
“Since it’s been publicly announced no state funds would be used for the event (the sexualization of children in literature, etc.) for which the below folks have had tickets purchased on Penny’s Phantom Card, can we use up the elected official’s budget,” she wrote, adding a Google Docs link. “And whatever the funds the Superintendent collects during fundraising can be used to reimburse that budget??”
Carroll responded on the day of the press conference and directed them to which funds should be used, and said they would deposit the funds back when the superintendent provided the reimbursement. He also said not to worry about hotel reservations or any other arrangements.
However, another charge was made Nov. 1 to the same individual procurement card for three no-show fees of $110.74 at the Holiday Inn Express for Wells, Fishbein and Jackson.
Rodriguez wrote a second letter at the end of November explaining they didn’t provide communication to anyone they would not be staying at the Holiday Inn Express or making their own hotel reservations.
“I confirmed with Superintendent Schroeder that the Holiday Inn Express charged my phantom card a no-show charge of $110.74 per guest,” she explained. “I provided him with copies of the invoices and let him know that these charges would need to be reimbursed to the WDE.”
These were the only official documents provided to the two residents by WDE Communications Director Linda Finnerty, besides two checks of $1,000 each sent by Todd A. Maus and Kyle True to the department labeled “for press conference.”
The two donations totaled $2,000 but didn’t cover the $2,416.34 spent by the department in full. No other donations were included in the documents, nor were any other expenditures for the room at the hotel resort or accommodations noted in the lawsuit exhibitions.
Although these documents showed these expenses, it was a drawn-out process, and didn’t leave Powers and McDaniel satisfied.
The first request for information was made by Powers on Oct. 14, directly to Superintendent Schroeder. He wanted answers on how the state funds were being used, if it was being sponsored privately, and who the actors were, had the public been publicly noticed, and a string of other questions.
Finnerty told him the superintendent would reach out to him directly on Oct. 19, and an answer was received after an additional follow-up the next day.
Schroeder said no state funds “will be used,” the funds to cover the cost of the event were through private donations, and WDE personnel would not have any roles or responsibilities in connection with the event. He didn’t provide the list of donors, but answered questions on who would be attending and said Powers was welcome to be at the event.
The answers weren’t detailed enough, according to the plaintiffs.
“Your reply was helpful, but regrettably it was also incomplete,” Powers wrote in a response.
These kinds of conversations continued for months, leading to McDaniel getting involved and requests for even more records from WDE. Often officials would cite having no materials or documentation that matched the request or that all the communications accessible that were available to them had been sent.
The final communication with WDE was filed by both Powers and McDaniels together, and was a response to the receipts, emails and two checks coming to light.
But there were many documents the two plaintiffs believed remained in the hands of the department.
They had requested communications between Schroeder and other representatives in WDE, as well as No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty officials — including personal texts and emails. This spanned materials for planning the event, as well as creating the statement within the department telling the public that state funds weren’t being used.
“In reviewing the materials that you produced, I noted that Superintendent Schroeder forwarded a copy of your October 11, 2022, email to himself at what I presume was his personal account, email@example.com. This suggests that he may have used his personal account to conduct or collect further communications relating to this event, and, if so, those emails should also be collected and produced as responsive public records,” McDaniel previously stated in an email to Finnerty. “There can be no dispute about the fact that Superintendent Schroeder was treating this event as part of his official function and a transaction of public business.”
Other questions revolved around meetings between Fishbein and Schroeder, the post-conference meeting that was “promoted as a chance to discuss strategy, legislation and law,” or the modification of original plans to hold the event on state-owned property.
Based on their review of the responses and documents related to specific requests, such as these, they said they had “serious concerns about the accuracy and sufficiency of those responses.” They didn’t believe that WDE had discharged its duties under the Wyoming Public Records Act, and proceeded to explain in great detail where perceived failures lie.
The two residents also warned WDE officials they were reserving their rights, “including, but not limited to, our rights to pursue this matter with the Office of the Ombudsman and/or with the courts.”
After the letter was sent to the department, the attorneys moved forward with litigation. They are asking the Laramie County District Court to order defendants to fully and properly produce all public records, as well as award penalties and damages caused by their “knowing or intentional failure to produce public records in compliance with the WPRA.”
Other damages, such as costs incurred or just and proper relief, was included, but information was the key component of the civil lawsuit.
“WDE and Schroeder have not been forthcoming in the responses to legitimate inquiries concerning this event,” according to Powers and McDaniel. “He may have chosen to call it a ‘press conference,’ but it was nothing more than a political rally staged to promote his personal agenda, as well as that of other selected persons and organizations.
“The people of Wyoming deserve a chance to see everything that was done in connection with this event. They are entitled to know who participated in its organization. They are entitled to know what public money was spent and, if private parties made contributions to defray those expenses, the people of Wyoming are entitled to know that, as well.”