USDA nondiscrimination rule slammed by state supt. candidates

CHEYENNE — Candidates for Wyoming superintendent of public instruction condemned a recent change by the Biden administration prohibiting schools that receive some lunch funding from discriminating against students based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Three Republicans – current Superintendent Brian Schroeder, Megen Degenfelder and Jennifer Zerba – attended the Monday evening forum. It was hosted by the Laramie County Republican Party and held at Lions Park. 

Two other declared Republican candidates – Robert J. White III of Rock Springs and Thomas Kelly of Sheridan – did not participate. 

Also in the race is Democrat Sergio A. Maldonado Sr. of Lander. 

Following a question about the candidates’ top three goals for their first year in office, should they be elected, local party Chair Dani Olsen asked the following question: “With the recent news about the Biden administration’s plans to hold school lunches hostage to the radical transgender agenda, which could compel schools to lose federal school lunch funding if they don’t submit to Biden’s radical gender identity anti-discrimination rules, as the superintendent of public instruction, what steps will you take to address the school lunch program and the new Title IX requirements?” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Food and Nutrition Service, recently updated its “interpretation of discrimination on the basis of sex in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance,” which now “includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to the Wyoming Department of Education.

In response to Olsen’s question, Schroeder said that as soon as he became aware of the USDA’s reinterpretation, he asked Gov. Mark Gordon if he could “come out strong against this” in a statement condemning it as federal overreach. 

Schroeder said Gordon agreed, “and then there was pushback.” 

“I got counsel that, in hindsight, was misinformed. So, the strategy was, ‘you fight this battle, Brian, out in public politically, and we’ll comply procedurally.’ I didn’t like it, I wasn’t comfortable with it, but I went with it for three days,” the state superintendent continued. 

He called other state superintendents, Wyoming legislators, State Treasurer Curt Meier, other government officials and “legal minds all over the country.” 

“I came back on Monday, and I called my people in, and I said I didn’t like it, I wasn’t comfortable with it, and we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to comply,” Schroeder said. 

“I was told, ‘I disagree with you.’ That’s fine. I was told, ‘You’re going to lose the election.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, so be it.’ This is a high enough hill to die on. I know where the Wyoming people are at on this. We’re not going to comply, and we’re in good company: Twenty-six other states have linked arms and are pushing back, and the Biden administration already is backing off.” 

It’s not clear how or if the USDA is backing down. The agency has not commented on Schroeder’s recent remarks. 

Schroeder said “this is a defining moment” for Wyoming, because the Biden administration will be “coming back for more.” 

“We have to be ready to fight,” Schroeder said to applause from attendees. 

Linda Finnerty, WDE’s communications director, said in a Tuesday interview she believed Schroeder was referring to direction he gave to WDE staff that the department’s nondiscrimination policy should not be changed. 

“The USDA’s nondiscrimination statement is their own ... but we have not changed anything of the WDE’s (nondiscrimination policy),” Finnerty said. 

Both of these policies appear in separate areas on the WDE’s website, with the USDA’s nondiscrimination policy appearing at the bottom of the “Nutrition” page. 

Schroeder was appointed to his position in late January by Gov. Gordon. 

Degenfelder weighed in on a larger cultural debate about potentially allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of what sex they identify as, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth. 

“I know one thing for certain: I’m not going to let kids go hungry, and I’m not going to let kids share the same bathroom. It’s not going to happen,” she said. 

Rather than complain or “yell and scream,” she said, “We have to do something about it and show the Biden administration that Wyoming’s not going to stand for it.” Degenfelder said she knows how to fight against the administration because “I do that every day in my job in the oil and gas industry.” 

She advocated for litigation against the federal government. 

If the pressure continued, she said the WDE could work with the state Legislature to fund school lunches without federal money. 

“We can afford it. We just have to reprioritize,” she said. 

She added that the WDE could potentially apply for a facilities grant so that it could “rethink our entire bathroom structure in every single school.” 

Zerba said that, according to the UDSA website and a Biden executive order, schools that receive the lunch funding are simply required to investigate discrimination. 

Still, she said, “I don’t think it’s right that they tied in and used food for our little ones as a pawn, though. I think that is wrong.” 

Zerba suggested a “farm-to-table” approach, proposing that schools could directly incorporate the state’s agricultural trade to provide food for students.