Citizen Engagement: Sheridan, Wyoming Legislative Delegation Discussions with Students
Many legislators meet with students, but the Sheridan/Johnson County area delegation has some practices worth noting. As described in an earlier NCSL blog entry, Legislative Forum these legislators often meet the public as a group. This gives the participants access to House and Senate members, allows the legislative delegation to divvy up responsibilities and fosters efficiency and coordination. The delegation also makes their public discussions informal and interactive, so the constituents feel comfortable raising questions and voicing opinions. The legislators are knowledgeable about the subjects being raised, but they are honest about the issues where they think they still need more thought or information. Also, the group spends time establishing strong partners for these public discussions.
Legislator Delegation Meets Tyson Emborg's Civics/Government Class
Tyson Emborg, an enthusiastic high school civics/government class instructor, offers his students the opportunity to meet legislative members. This year, the delegation visited on May 23, the last day of classes. Mr. Emborg prepped the students to ask the delegation questions. The class kept the discussion going bell to bell. The format was that legislators Senator John Schiffer and Representatives Jon Botten, Rosie Berger and John Patton introduce themselves and Emborg called on students for their questions. Many of the students focused on the merit-based Wyoming Hathaway scholarship program, which provides significant funding for Wyoming students to go to in-state schools. The questions concerned curriculum requirements, in-state school and other eligibility criteria, as well as funding associated with the relatively recent program. The students, while generally supportive, expressed their desires for flexibility under the program to show developed expertise in areas like photography or welding that demonstrates a marketable skill, while connecting to the individual’s passion. What seemed important from a process standpoint was that the legislators would periodically engage the students by asking “what do you think?” getting them to articulate why they thought that way. At one point, Sen. Schiffer and one of the students brainstormed on some ways to open some of the requirements while still making the students demonstrate their proficiency.
The discussion also benefited from the lack of filters---questions included asking about legislators’ personal opinions on gay marriage, balancing energy and environmental concerns, and shooting wolves. Students also inquired about why there was a need for passing legislation through two houses of the legislature, the particular issues faced by Representative Botten in his dual roles of legislator and a municipal judge, and the applicability of the death penalty in a particular fact situation. The team approach allowed the legislators to answer the questions they felt most knowledgeable about, and it helped show the students how citizen legislators have a wide variety of backgrounds. This delegation included a rancher, and an attorney and two business operators. Each showed how they used their backgrounds and experiences in their legislative work.
Legislators often meet individually with students, but the team approach has a lot of benefits. The Sheridan area legislators gave the students a sense of the variety of personalities and approaches that lawmakers bring to the state capital. Through their discussions they create a vital link with a key teacher and with the school as a whole. In a break between classes, Mr. Emborg gave the delegation a tour, allowing the legislators a few words with a number of students and teachers throughout the building. Principal Dirleen Wheeler sat down over lunch and thanked the legislators, caught them up on some recent school trends and challenges, and talked about school pride in two recent National Merit Finalists. Lastly, the legislator team approach gave the delegation some time together to reflect on what students were saying and thinking and what that meant for next year’s session in Cheyenne.