New texts, emails show Wyoming Department of Education staff hesitated to move forward with 2022 event
By Samir Knox
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Text messages and emails provided to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle show confusion and dissent among Wyoming Department of Education staffers last year, as they scrambled to figure out plans the former state superintendent of public instruction made for a press conference labeled “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children.”
Former Superintendent Brian Schroeder organized the event in late October of last year, with the input of several local and national conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.
Schroeder initially denied using public funds to finance his press conference, but messages indicate that Schroeder did use state money to fund the event and spent the remainder of 2022 trying to raise private funds to reimburse his department.
Linda Finnerty, chief communications officer for WDE, expressed concern with the conduct of Schroeder to several colleagues in text messages last year.
“(Chief Academic Officer Shelley Hamel) says Brian is back on the literacy campaign,” Finnerty wrote in a text to former WDE Chief of Staff Chad Auer in September of 2022, “seems to think we’re still doing it. … Lord help me. If he just work on the transition stuff that would be so valuable.”
The messages were released as part of a public records lawsuit brought about by former lawyers George Powers of Cheyenne and Rodger McDaniel of Laramie.
The two attorneys filed a suit earlier this year seeking records involving the final months of Schroeder’s tenure and the event. Powers told the WTE that the last group of documents from the WDE will likely arrive before the end of the year, and the court case might continue into 2024.
Finnerty repeatedly expressed concern with Schroeder emphasizing the press conference over transitioning to the administration of current Superintendent Megan Degenfelder. In early October, Finnerty noted to Auer that the former superintendent was scheduling meetings with right-wing activists in No Left Turn in Education and local lawyer Drake Hill.
“I do not know what he is doing with (Drake),” she wrote to Auer.
“He’s definitely in cahoots with (former Superintendent) Cindy Hill, Drake Hill and Kevin Lewis,” Auer replied. “Damage control until January.”
“They scare me,” Finnerty replied. Auer added that, “they do not have the WDE’s best interest in mind.”
Around that time, Finnerty noted to colleagues that Schroeder was rarely opening official emails and had migrated most of his correspondence to his personal email.
On Oct. 11, 2022, Finnerty emailed a message to Schroeder, telling him that staffers at the WDE wanted to make sure the department was not crossing any ethical boundaries by hosting the event directly. In a text message to Auer the following day, Finnerty noted that she had not heard anything from the superintendent regarding the notice, despite him opening the message.
“He probably (forwarded) it to Drake Hill for his advice,” Auer joked to Finnerty.
According to email records from Schroeder’s phone, he forwarded the message from his professional email to his personal one, and then forwarded it to Drake Hill, Cindy Hill and Kevin Lewis.
“See email below from Linda Finnerty and company,” he wrote to them. “The push back has begun. … Let me know a good time to talk today about this.”
At the time, Schroeder had told colleagues he was in Rwanda with his daughter, helping with an education program.
From Rwanda, he began planning the press conference privately with conservative activists Elana Fishbein, a Pennsylvania resident and founder of No Left Turn in Education, and Kathy Scigliano, the head of the Cheyenne Moms for Liberty chapter.
In correspondence with Fishbein, he acknowledged attempts he previously denied publicly to fund the event with department money.
“Will have to discuss how we’re going to finance flying three of you out here and accommodations, as I am having difficulty getting the Dept. of Ed. to pay for it,” he wrote to Fishbein on Oct. 11, 2022, “they throw up obstacles with anything they view as having a conservative agenda.”
On Oct. 19, 2022, six days before the press conference, Schroeder asked Fishbein for $2,085 to reimburse the WDE for the cost of flying Fishbein and other activists out for the press conference. Later, text messages show that Schroeder reached out to Blair Maus and Kyle True for $1,000 each to independently finance the flight expenses for Fishbein and associates. Schroeder said that he covered the remaining $85 himself.
Messages show that it took Schroeder more than a month to get the $2,000 from the private donors, with correspondence between Schroeder and True about the check stretching into early December.
Fishbein and the former superintendent continued discussing the reimbursement of an additional $743.43 in personal funds that her organization spent on the trip into the final days of 2022. Those expenses were privately funded through checks from donors and Schroeder himself.
“As the year is nearing the end I’d like to close our books properly,” Fishbein wrote to Schroeder in an email on Dec. 26, 2022. She detailed an itemized list of expenses for the trip and the outstanding costs Schroeder owed.
“God brought us together and made you contact me for a reason,” she said at the end of the message. “Please keep in touch. All the good forces in this fight must unite to save the children and the country!!!”
In a group text with WDE officials, Finnerty said that Executive Assistant Penny Rodriguez was uncomfortable when asked by Schroeder to book hotels and plane tickets to fly Fishbein and her associates to Cheyenne for the event.
“I have asked her to stop for now doing anything at all until I can find out from you and the chiefs if this is even something she should be doing, much less the WDE,” Finnerty wrote on Oct. 12, 2022. “… She feels completely stuck in the middle and (as) if she’s doing something she’s not supposed to.”
“She has reason to be upset,” Auer replied. “It’s pushing the ethical envelope. … continues to be a disappointing tenure for the (superintendent).”
“Icky is the only word I can think that matches it,” Finnerty said back in the group via text.
Some of the records also showed personal correspondence from Schroeder with several Wyoming legislators, where he urged them to attend the press conference and make child sexualization in schools and “gender ideology” a prime focus of upcoming legislative sessions.