Wyoming Education Association

Summer 2021

Issue link: https://digital.copcomm.com/i/1390700

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14 The Grand Teton mountain range is iconic. The Tetons cut a signature sawtooth silhouette across the horizon line in Jackson—instantly recognizable for their sharp peaks and steep valleys. In some ways, the Tetons are the perfect visual metaphor for the economic disparity plaguing Jackson Hole. Some families are living on the highest peaks of economic well-being, basking in the sun of financial certainty that comes with the more than $28 million per year in income of the top 1% of families living in Teton County. Other families are trapped in the lowest of low economic valleys in Jackson. The remaining 99% of wage earners command, on average, 132 times less than Teton County's wealthiest residents. The average worker in the area's abounding tourism industry brings home just $41,052 per year. Wyoming native, Yale University professor and author, Justin Farrell, has studied Jackson's income disparity extensively. Farrell shares his findings with readers in his new book Billionaire Wilderness. Readers learn from interviews with public school teachers featured in the book that students, particularly Latinx students, are "exhausted" because they are routinely sleeping on the floor, sharing a bed with a younger sibling, sleeping on a couch in an over-crowded home, or staying up late watching TV or playing video games. Farrell's interviews also highlight that student homelessness is an unfortunate reality in Teton County, one schoolteacher saying, "just picture parent-teacher conferences. One couple walks in with stilettos and Armani, and the next family walks in with no clothes." As a fifth-grade teacher at Munger Mountain Elementary, WEA member Libby Crews Wood shared with WEA News that, in her experience, the wealth disparity between her students has grown even more apparent during the past school year as a result of COVID-19. "Teton County has long been a second—or third— home to those who live, go to school, and make money elsewhere," she said. "However, when school started this year, we saw an unprecedented increase in enrollment of over 100 students. Those cold beds in multi-million dollar homes warmed up when Jackson Hole provided safe refuge from COVID-19 raging in bigger cities." Even as lower-income families in Teton County struggle to make ends meet and the rest of Wyoming is facing a fiscal cliff that's slashing budgets for essential public services, Justin Farrell says, times have never been better for the wealthy in Jackson. "The pandemic has supercharged the number of people and amount of wealth flooding in from outside the cowboy state. The luxury real estate market is booming, shattering records. It is now a multi-billion dollar industry just in Jackson Hole alone. This year, an average home sold for nearly $4 million, and total sales were well over $2.5 billion! Wyoming is happy to tax similar billion-dollar oil and gas industries," said Farrell, "so why won't they tax this new billion- dollar luxury real estate industry and the newcomers buying these ten-million-dollar properties? Most states do–yet they again refuse to collect any real estate transfer tax that could raise hundreds of millions." "So, this is not a complex economic problem," he continued, "This is an ideological problem, and a moral problem—and the fact of the matter is that Wyoming's legislature is choosing to shelter California billionaires in Jackson Hole over their own people across the state." Wood believes that housing is the single most critical and divisive issue impacting her students and Teton County education employees. "There are six to eight pages of ads for jobs and less than a column inch of available housing in the weekly paper," said Wood. "The district is struggling to keep young teachers, paraprofessionals, and substitutes because it is too costly to live here. We have over 4,000 commuters a day from Teton County, Idaho, and Alpine, Wyoming. Jackson's Income Disparity Overcoming America's wealthiest community is also its most unequal. WEA News explores what it means for students and how educators are working to ensure equality in the classrooms of a community characterized by inequity. By: Amanda Turner

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