Book-banning officials begin removing Wyoming public agency leaders

Wyoming’s public sector has been losing quality workers as a result of the state’s worsening political environment and the rise of agenda-driven lawmakers.

When Chuck Gray was elected in 2022 as Wyoming Secretary of State while falsely claiming that the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was stolen, the state agency saw a mass exodus of experienced staff members who refused to work for a liar.

Wyoming public school teachers have been caught in the crossfire of COVID-19 controversies while being disrespected as “groomers” who push “indoctrination” via Critical Race Theory. This has prompted many Wyoming educators to quit, accelerating a statewide teacher shortage.

Wyoming is entering a new and even grimmer chapter, as ideological officials remove leaders from local public institutions who don’t jive with their agendas.

Slash-and-burn budget cuts by the Legislature have kept state agencies from offering wages that keep up with the cost of living, even as the state receives record tax revenue. As a result, many state agency positions remain vacant. For instance, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is struggling to fill 300 jobs, including more than 60 snow-plow drivers.

Now, Wyoming appears to be entering a new and even grimmer chapter, as ideological officials have begun to directly remove leaders from local public institutions who don’t jive with their agendas.

Religious activists who gained seats on the Campbell County Library Board fired the library’s longtime director, Terri Lesley, last month, allegedly for refusing to remove “pornographic” books. 

The library board includes Sage Bear, wife of Wyoming Freedom Caucus Chairman John Bear, who promotes a radical religious agenda to ban books and criminalize librarians at the Wyoming Legislature.

Campbell County Library board member Sage Bear and her husband, Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. John Bear, both work from positions of power to ban books and criminalize librarians in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, in Cheyenne, the Laramie County School District #1 board of trustees pushed out award-winning superintendent Margaret Crespo earlier this month following a protracted campaign by Moms for Liberty to attempt to ban books from Cheyenne school libraries

In 2022, three Moms for Liberty activists won seats on the LCSD1 school board, encouraging the board to put book banning ahead of all other district business. Crespo, interested in other district matters, left when it became clear that her concerns did not align with the board’s.

Members of Moms for Liberty and the so-called Freedom Caucus regularly complain that the government, in general, does a bad job. By encouraging quality public workers to leave and actively pushing out experienced leaders, they are indeed worsening our public institutions and creating their own self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gillette librarian: Job became ‘Pure Hell’ 

Terri Lesley enjoyed the first 25 years of her career at the Campbell County Public Library in Gillette. She became executive director in 2012, and thought she’d never leave. 

When the library board voted 4 – 1 to fire her last month after she refused to resign, she had a parting shot for her critics: “This was my dream job, but the last two years were pure hell.”

Lesley’s good feelings vanished in 2021 when a newly appointed board, including Sage Bear, began pushing an agenda crafted by MassResistance, a national religious anti-LGBTQ organization.  

While most of her career had been spent overseeing the day-to-day operations of a public learning center and community space, Lesley suddenly found herself in the middle of a culture war promoted by out-of-state groups. 

“It started to get political,” Lesley told Better Wyoming. “It felt like a surprise attack on the library. Things started to get stressful, and it just kept going on and on.”

A small group of MassResistance-affiliated protesters began organizing around book-banning issues that have become popular among radical religious groups nationwide. 

“I can’t remember the last time I was flipped off by a bunch of little gray-haired old ladies.”

One local couple even tried to have Lesley arrested for “disseminating obscene material”—an allegation that was formally considered by a special prosecutor and promptly dropped as unfounded.

This small but vocal group began to appear regularly at county commission and library board meetings, calling librarians “groomers” and “pedophiles” and calling for Lesley’s resignation. 

As time went on, more and more Gillette residents caught wind of what was happening and organized their own demonstrations in support of Lesley and their public library. But it was too late.

With Bear and other MassResistance members on the library board, the people in the seats of power had their say and fired Lesley at their regular meeting in July after she refused to resign.

The crowd of library supporters reacts to Lesley’s firing

A large crowd was on hand at the meeting to support Lesley and protest the library board.

“I can’t remember the last time I was flipped off by a bunch of little gray-haired old ladies,” library board chairman Chuck Butler said after casting his vote to fire Lesley.

Moms for Liberty push out superintendent

Around the same time that protests against Lesley began, Laramie County School District No. 1 hired Margaret Crespo as superintendent. At one of her first meetings, numerous audience members called on Crespo to resign or be fired.

As in Gillette, the reason was so-called “sexually explicit” books targeted by Moms for Liberty for their LGBTQ content.

Moms for Liberty protesters tried to get school librarians to remove batches of books, and when that failed, they pressured the district’s board of trustees. A favorite tactic for the group is to attend school board meetings and read select passages from books available at the high school library that feature sex acts.

“If you put pictures to the material that was read, our superintendent would be in jail for trafficking in kiddie porn,” said Darin Smith, a Cheyenne attorney. He claimed “extreme leftists” control the school district, even though his wife, Alicia Smith, is a board trustee and actually, literally controls the district.

Moms for Liberty began a “book watch” Facebook page to police the LCSD1 library

Crespo continued to work with the public to improve school library policies. But in recent months she was embroiled in other attempts to drive her out of the district, including an allegation that Crespo had created a hostile work environment for administrators and teachers. 

An independent investigator found the charges unsubstantiated after Crespo had left the district, but they served as pretense for the board to pressure her to move on.

Days after her resignation, Crespo was appointed the first superintendent-in-residence of Women Leading Ed, a national network committed to growing the number of women in educational leadership.

Her tough times in Cheyenne may have helped win her the job. In its announcement, Women Leading Ed noted that Crespo “confronted and effectively managed a highly volatile political culture and earned praise for holding tight to core values that prioritized student interests and wellbeing over agendas influenced by adults.”

A wake-up call to action

While the Gillette community began to rally around Lesley when her fate was already sealed, a similar group began to organize in Cheyenne as Crespo was already moving toward the door.

“Terri’s firing helped people get engaged here—they’ve rallied to support the library because of what the board did to her.”

In recent months, the Wyoming Family Alliance for Freedom formed in Cheyenne to stand up against the Moms for Liberty and oppose book banning.

The group, whose motto is “Free people read freely,” has begun to attend school board meetings, as well as legislative committee meetings, to support reading, librarians, teachers, and public education.

Wyoming Family Alliance for Freedom pro-book t-shirt

Meanwhile, community members in Gillette continue to organize in support of their library, and some even view Lesley’s firing as a wake-up call that will motivate even more people to publicly step up.

Vicki Swenson, a retired Gillette educator, said despite Lesley being forced out of her job, the board didn’t win.

“They’ve done a lot of barking, but they’ve not moved a book,” Swenson said. “This is really dangerous stuff, and it’s across the nation. But I think Terri’s firing helped people get engaged here—they’ve rallied to support the library because of what the board did to her.”

Wyoming’s public sector has struggled to retain quality workers in recent years as lawmakers have slashed wages and the political climate has grown toxic. Now, officials driven by radical religious agendas are removing experienced local leaders, including a longtime public library director and an award-winning school superintendent.