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Outgoing Natrona trustees warn us-versus-them controversies leech attention away from learning

NCHS graduation ceremony in May 2022.(Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. — It started with masks and COVID-19 vaccines. Then it moved to topics like critical race theory and book banning.

For the last two years, school board meetings in the Natrona County School District have frequently been soaked in debate around hot-button issues, and some of the outgoing NCSD trustees warned Monday that all the controversy is leeching attention away from real issues the board is meant to address.

Monday was the last meeting for Trustees Kianna Smith, Dave Applegate, Debbie McCullar and Clark Jensen. Some shared advice for their colleagues who will remain on the board as well as the four incoming trustee-elects: Michael Stedillie, a retired teacher; Jenifer Hopkins and Mary Schmidt, both members of the local chapter of the “Moms for Liberty”; and Kevin Christopherson, who previously served on the board from 2012 to 2020.

Prior to the outgoing trustees’ comments at the end of the meeting on Monday, the school board reached a final decision regarding two LGBTQ books, deciding they should be allowed to stay in high school libraries on the condition that new restrictions be imposed limiting access to minor-age students. The debate about books in school libraries has been ongoing since at least December 2021, with members of the local chapter of the “Moms for Liberty,” an organization which has been involved in calling for book bans across the country, raising the alarm bell about book titles they claim are inappropriate for students.

With the book banning controversy just one of a variety of contentious issues people have brought to the board, Smith talked about how politically divisive things have been for the last two years, a notable shift from her first two years of service on the NCSD Board of Trustees.

“Though it is true I lost reelection despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’m not going to pretend that I am completely disappointed that my time on the school board is coming to an end,” Smith said. “In a way, I also feel a little bit of relief. The reason for that is because of how much things have changed.

“The last two years have seen a political shift that has been marked by a succumbing to a national narrative of fear — fear of not being in complete control, fear of certain ideas, fear of those who might dare to disagree with us. And those gripped by this fear ascribe every problem to a concerted ‘agenda’ on the part of those on the other side to destroy the nation from within. We’ve given in to this fear that if we don’t fight the battle that we have conceived of in our own minds, freedom itself will crumble.”

Smith said she thinks the fears driving the division are not based in reality.

“This battle only exists in our minds,” she said. “Narratives based in fear never represent the full picture of events. This us-versus-them story really only has as much power as we choose to give it. But right now it seems to have a lot of power in the minds of people in Natrona County and across the nation as well.

“The truth is that this isn’t a battle between good and evil and those of us on the right side and those other people on the wrong side. In reality we’re all on the same side. We’re all here to work together for the good of our community. Despite our disagreements, we all want the best for students in NCSD. That’s how government is meant to function, through cooperation and compromise. It’s not going to function at all if we instead choose to live in fear of one another and hurl accusations at the other side instead of working together.”

Applegate spoke about a possible way that people who disagree might still be able to come together for the good of the community.

“Maybe all of you out there that have such different opinions can maybe share a meal together, find out what your common humanity is and not just your differences,” he said.

McCullar took a sharper tone in her comments, criticizing groups like “Moms for Liberty” for distracting the school board with things like the book banning controversy.

“The ‘Moms for Liberty’ and the ‘Patriots for Liberty’ have consistently asked for response from the trustees and tonight I’m going to answer your calls,” McCullar said. “I think it’s time for you to get a taste of your own medicine.”

McCullar said her comments were mainly directed at Schmidt, who she called the “‘Moms’ and ‘Patriots’ anointed leader and driver of discontent among her minions.”

“When you guys first came to the board, I thought you a passionate group who wanted masks to be optional because they weren’t good for our kids and I wholeheartedly agreed,” McCullar said. “We asked for your opinions but because of an overabundance of concern, we didn’t vote to apply for a variance. Our mistake. And the crowd roared and you haven’t quit since.”

While the school board started seeing heated public comment periods during the COVID-19 pandemic, McCullar said that since then, controversy after controversy has been paraded in front of the school board.

“This has been going on for more than a year and a half,” she said. “First, we got schooled [by] you [on] critical race theory — which we didn’t even teach — and then you moved on to your 15,000 book title search at Kelly Walsh high school.

“That was anal, Mary, though you did find two books from your ‘Moms for Liberty’ talking points to be outraged about — I guess it wasn’t completely fruitless. These books that had been on shelves for three years and had been checked out to fewer than 20 students over that time. You used those books to inflame the community, but that didn’t stop you. Nope, the pornography claim was born. A new battle cry.”

In addition to what she saw as theatrical and manipulative language on the part of the “Moms for Liberty,” McCullar said the group has threatened and bullied school board members.

“For months on end, this board listened to you while you ‘Moms’ and ‘Patriots for Liberty’ disparaged us with your threats, bullying, constant insults and sarcastic remarks,” she said. “As you watched us, I watched you. I also watched as you disrespected other community members who came to speak against your book challenge.

“Through these non-issues, you have brought your politics to a nonpartisan entity. You’ve divided people into an us-versus-them mentality and you aren’t shy about posting your thoughts on social media.”

McCullar expressed skepticism that Schmidt has answers to address issues facing the school board once she is seated in January.

“My observation, Mary, is that you and your minions have been spouting misinformation all over the community as if you have some intimate knowledge of this school system or, moreover, that you have the answers to cure all the ills of public education,” McCullar said. “In my opinion, your year and a half attending meetings has been a huge distraction and disservice to our kids.

“Fact is, you are an activist homeschool mother and you don’t know what you don’t know. You attended a budget meeting and then you came before this board to suggest that we didn’t need to spend all that money on food costs — if parents were providing for their kids, we should just give them a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk. That was a heartless comment, Mary. Develop some empathy. Unfortunately our society is a mess. Because our schools are a microcosm of society, our kids bring all the ills of society to school with them every single day. That’s why it is important we are prepared to teach the whole child by offering a variety of services and interventions. Food is just one service. As I already stated, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

While her comments were largely critical of Schmidt, McCullar expressed some hope that Schmidt might act differently once she is seated as a trustee in January.

“You have the opportunity to learn and I heartfully hope that you will take advantage of the wisdom and experience of the other members of this board,” McCullar said. “I hope that you will listen to learn. I hope that you will throw your agenda away and leave your religious and political biases at the door because if you don’t, you will never get seven of these trustees to support any of your ideas.

“Know that your job is not to micromanage the district, but to keep a 30,000-foot view on the system. The only employee you have any responsibility for is the superintendent. Finally, I hope for your own good you stay off social media. You do not speak for the district.”

A Nov. 15 post on the “Mary Schmidt NCSB Trustee” Facebook page accused one of Schmidt’s fellow incoming trustees who has spoken against the banning of books of supporting “the sexualization of children.” Schmidt told Oil City News on Tuesday morning that while she controls that Facebook page, she did not make the post. Smith shared a statement in response to McCullar’s comments on Tuesday. That statement has been added at the end of this article.

McCullar said Monday that people who failed to vote in the General Election are responsible for Schmidt and Hopkins winning seats on the school board.

“The voters of Natrona County did a real disservice to the school district because 60% of you stayed home and enabled two homeschool activists to win seats on the board — not the best outcome for our kids,” she said.

Jensen contained his comments to expressing gratitude and appreciation for NCSD staff and his fellow trustees.

Full comments from trustees as well as residents who spoke Monday can be heard in the recording of the meeting on NCSD’s YouTube channel:

Schmidt shared the following statement on Tuesday afternoon in response to McCullar’s comments during the meeting on Monday:

I would like to respond to NCSD Trustee McCullar’s final comment at the November 28th board meeting.

I would like to start by saying that I wish Ms. McCullar only the best.  I understand that she worked tirelessly for the past eight years and losing the election after the difficulty of the past two years was difficult for her. 

When you make the choice to run for an elected position you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the voters.  You work hard at presenting your views, positions on issues, you advertise, and run on your record.  To have the voters reject your efforts can be trying.

I believe Ms. McCullar list of grievances against me are factually incorrect.  The mask protests started with four moms’ that I do not know.  Their comments were reported in the news in the Spring of 2021.  I read the comments, became curious and attended the NCSD board meetings on the masks.  I don’t believe I even spoke at those meetings. 

Another mom who I do not know created the NCSD variance page.  I was invited to join because I made a comment on a news article.  That page progressed into a concerned parent forum for Natrona county. Yes, I participated in some of the discussions on that page.

The “schooling on CRT” that she refers to was born out of a concern regarding the SEL program Character Strong that was being used at the local high schools last year.  Jenifer Hopkins and I had children taking classes at the high school and were being required to sit in on the Character Strong classes being offered in the Trojan Connections.

We started researching the program and discovered an alarming amount of information about the program, the company that distributes the program and the organizations that are involved in creating these types of programs.  At this point we had met several other mom’s and community members that had been attending school board meetings after the mask uproar.  That is how Mom’s for Liberty of Natrona County was born. 

From the creation of Mom’s For Liberty of Natrona came the collaboration on research of Social Emotional Learning programs in the district.  When we had our presentation put together, we requested a meeting with the district and the board of trustees.  We were granted an informal meeting with the district staff that included Debbie McCullar.  Then we were given an opportunity to formally present our findings to the Board of Trustees at a school board meeting. At both the informal and formal presentations Ms. McCullar was gracious, asked questions and thanked us for a thoughtful presentation.

In regard to the book issues.  If you support keeping books that are intended for school age children that instruct on sexual acts, toys, occupation, and surgeries then yes, I believe that you are supportive of the educational sexualization of children.  If you support keeping books that depict sexual graphic pictures and sexually graphic language, then yes, I believe that you are supportive of the sexualization of children.  That is my opinion.

My research of the books at KW library brought to my attention that we have social and reading competency problem at the high school.  I realized that there are multiple books on transgenderism.  We as a community need to address exactly how we should handle the idea of affirming body dysphoria, graphic sexual language, and images.  We should acknowledge that when one person is in charge of the selection of reading material that goes into our library and uses the American Library Association guidelines, we will have unbalanced selection of reading materials.

Regarding Mr. Paulson’s comments. Ms. McCullar apparently did not observe Jenifer Hopkins get up and walk out after Mr. Paulson and admonish him in the lobby of the district office for his comments that evening.  

I accept the accusations of demonic screeches, panic, hypocrite, divisiveness, mis-information, etc. as a product of the difficulty in accepting the election results.  I hope that in time she will reconcile herself with the results.

Yes, I am proud to be an “activist” homeschool mom.  I will always cherish my ties to the homeschool community.  They are some of the most carrying, intelligent and honorable people that I have ever met.  I will always advocate for the parent and families of the children of this district.  I would like to see the district support the family with resources and education when necessary.

It is my hope that I can work with the existing five trustees that remain on the board.  I have expressed my interest in working with them and putting the election behind us with the current chairman.  I have yet to receive a response.  Based on the reaction and support of Debbie McCullar by the existing board after her comments last night.  I will assume that we are not entering into an amicable environment.

I have spoken with Mr. Christopherson and look forward to working with him for the next four year.  I spoke with Mr. Stedillie at the meeting and had a cordial conversation.  Although we may disagree on issues. I look forward to working with him as well.

Mary Schmidt

NOTE: Schmidt’s statement was added to the article after it was received on Tuesday afternoon. The article has been updated.