State Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, and his primary election challenger, Republican R.J. Kost of Powell, agree that individual school districts should be allowed to decide whether they want to arm trained staff.
But the candidates for Senate District 19 diverged on whether arming staffers is the right approach to school security.
“I’ve got to be honest: I am not in support of it,” Kost, a longtime Powell educator, said at a Tuesday evening forum in Cody. “But I think each district needs to make those decisions for themselves.”
The Cody school board voted earlier this year to adopt a policy that allows staff to carry a gun after completing hours of training and undergoing a psychological evaluation.
The Powell school board, meanwhile, decided to instead spend roughly a year drafting a comprehensive safety plan that’s intended to look at all aspects of school safety. Kost, who served as the Powell district’s curriculum coordinator until his June retirement, favored that approach.
“I feel that our district was honorable in saying, ‘We need to stop this before it gets to guns,’” Kost said. The state needs to meet the mental health needs of people who are struggling, he said, so perhaps a shooting can be prevented.
“To say, ‘OK, we’re going to throw a gun in there so we can help,’ the chaos of guns in schools if there’s a shooting is just beyond my belief,” Kost said. “I know that I would protect our kids any way I could, but it wouldn’t be with a gun, it would be with myself.”
Kost said he would never be able to forgive himself if he accidentally shot a kid.
Differing from Kost, Peterson said he “definitely” supports Cody’s decision to arm trained staff.
“Gun-free zones are an invitation for those people,” Peterson said, citing mass shootings at movie theaters and school campuses; Peterson, who manages an office supply company, said he had nieces and nephews attending Columbine High School the day two students gunned down 13 fellow students and faculty members.
“If you put a sign out front that says this is a gun-free zone, I can’t think of anything worse of how to protect your children [than] by advertising that on a school campus,” Peterson said, adding, “I think the most effective deterrent would be to put that sign out in front of the Cody schools saying we do have guns on the premises.”
Peterson voted for the 2017 bill that gave individual school boards the ability to decide whether they want to arm staff.
“I think that [approach] was wise,” he said.
Another of the questions posed at the forum, hosted by the Park County Republican Women at the Holiday Inn, asked the candidates what changes they’d like to make to Wyoming’s education system.
Peterson said he’s “pretty content” with the state’s schools and the way they educate children.
“I think right now in Wyoming our education system could use a little help, but for the most part, what we’ve built over the last 10 years or so with teacher salaries, new schools, special education, those areas, we’ve done pretty well,” he said, saying it’s a system most states look at “with some jealousy.”
Peterson said he supports instructional facilitators — positions that are not directly funded under Wyoming’s current model — because he likes the concept of “helping our teachers become better teachers and better in their profession.”
The 13-year Senate veteran said he’d also like to see better, more effective evaluations of teachers; Peterson noted that he sponsored an unsuccessful bill in 2011 that would have put cameras in school classrooms for that purpose.
Kost said he didn’t think anyone in Wyoming would oppose good, honest evaluations of the state’s teachers, “but in the process of doing that, it needs to be fair and that’s the part that we’ve got to look at.”
He said Wyoming is fortunate to have “probably some of the best schools in the nation.”
Kost did say the state has focused too much on four-year college degrees and not enough on trades.
“We need to look at our CTE [career and technical education] programs … and how can we enhance our students’ [educations] to better meet their needs, their dreams in those areas,” he said. “You try to get a plumber or a carpenter right now and you’ll find out that it’s extremely difficult.”
Part of that, Kost said, involves supporting Wyoming’s community colleges.
The candidates were also asked how the State of Wyoming can increase its revenue as tax dollars from the minerals industry have declined.
Kost said it starts “with trying to find out what we have that we can offer to others.”
“We need to talk to our constituents and say, what is it you see? What is it that we can do? How can we look outside our natural focus and say, what can we do to make a difference?” he said. Kost suggested assessing whether the state has adequate infrastructure, such as reliable internet access and transportation.
Peterson, who chairs the Legislature’s revenue committee, indicated that he could support a statewide hospitality and leisure tax — assessed on establishments like hotels, restaurants and museums. He was surprised that a proposal to assess a 1 percent tax on those services was killed during the past legislative session.
“Money leaves our state faster than we can generate the benefit from it,” Peterson said. “And so, in reality, getting some of that money back from some of our tourists, getting some money back into our state from outside of our state, I thought was a reasonable idea.”
He noted that he’s also been a vocal advocate for taxing online sales, to boost state revenue and “level up the playing field between Main Street business and those outside of our state that haven’t had to pay taxes.”
“So I’ve been right there on the front lines fighting the battle for increasing taxes in [those] aspects,” he said.
With no Democratic, independent or third-party candidates emerging so far, the winner of the Republican primary will likely be a lock to win the Senate seat. The district encompasses the Powell area plus northern Big Horn County — including Byron, Cowley, Lovell, Deaver, Frannie, Greybull and Shell.