GILLETTE — On Tuesday night, the long-awaited fate of Gillette College was decided.
By a 4,160-to-1,724 margin, Campbell County voters overwhelmingly approved the college's separation from the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
The Gillette Community College District will become the eight district in Wyoming.
Seven trustees also were elected to form the new district's inaugural board of trustees.
“I moved into this town in 1983 and this was an issue then,” said Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette. “We’ve never been able to pass a Gillette independent college. So after 40 years, it’s really neat to see us have our own representation, our own board.”
“I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do as a new independent community college,” he said. “I’m just excited about where we’re at and our future, how we’re going to develop our economy and diversify our workforce. It’s just overwhelming to me.”
As the special election results began trickling in Tuesday night, a contingent of vote-yes supporters gathered at Grinners Bar and Liquor to await the future of Gillette College.
With each update to the voting tally, the crowd grew more and more optimistic. Satisfied with the growing lead in favor of the new district before the final numbers came in, Wasserburger was handed a bottle of champagne to celebrate the win. He popped it and dumped some on newly elected district trustee Josh McGrath’s head as the crowd cheered on.
“We have an obligation to leave this community better than the way we found it,” McGrath said to the crowd. “We did that today.”
McGrath’s mother, Sherry, was a longtime supporter of Gillette College who was there the last time the county voted on a new district nearly 30 years ago.
“My mom lived and died for this,” he said.
Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King was not coy about her support for the independent district. Without it, she said the future of Gillette would be in doubt.
“How could we have told industry and people who wanted to move here that we were a progressive, forward-thinking city if we don’t even vote for a college?” she said.
The path to Tuesday’s election began in June 2020 when NWCCD unexpectedly cut the sports programs at Gillette and Sheridan colleges. After that, the county formed a task force to work toward creating an independent district around Gillette College.
That road led through the Wyoming Community College Commission and the Wyoming Legislature before finally coming to a public vote.
“Thank you Sheridan College for stopping our sports programs because if you hadn’t done that, we would not be here tonight,” Carter-King said.
The 5,884 total ballots that were counted is down slightly from the 2017 special election, where 6,083 ballots were cast.
On Tuesday, 2,412 people voted, and 60 percent, or 1,458 of them, were in support of the college district, while 954 voted against it.
Some 3,142 people voted early, and 2,464 of them — or 78 percent — supported the college district.
And 330 ballots were mailed into the elections office or dropped off Tuesday, and 238 of them, 72 percent, were for the college, while 92 were against it.
A total of 3,472 people voted early or absentee, which represents 59% of all the ballots cast, while 41 percent voted Tuesday.
The special election had a voter turnout of 29.7 percent. Special elections historically have a low turnout compared to a regular election.
A total of 5,924 ballots were turned in, but there were 39 ballots where there was an undervote, meaning the voter did not vote for either option. And one person voted for both options. An additional two ballots were turned in blank.
These results are unofficial, and they will remain unofficial until the canvassing board meets later this week to certify the results.
The last special election in 2017 was on a quarter-cent excise tax for economic development, and it had 6,083 total ballots cast. That tax was defeated, with 3,730 people, or 61 percent, voting against the tax. Thirty-nine percent, or 2,353 people, voted for it. This election had a 32.4-percent voter turnout.
Jacob Dalby, one of the leading voices against the tax, said he thought there would be a better turnout from the “no” side.
“It was a bad turnout. They pushed it in with the special election, but they like to do that with taxes,” he said, adding that the “the liberals had a good push” and a lot of money.
“Money always wins,” he said.
The Our Community, Our College PAC raised $170,000, compared to about $6,000 raised by Dalby’s Anti Tax Coalition.
Most of the voters were misled by the pro-college district campaign, Dalby said.
“The vote yes side was definitely a bunch of liberals. And the whole board ... they’re all liberals, everybody knows that,” Dalby said.
But the truth will come out soon enough, he added.
“It’s not going to take very long at all before everybody realizes these assholes lied to us,” he said.
Nello Williams, who was elected as one of seven trustees Tuesday night, was not surprised by the vote passing despite the push against it by those opposed to the up to 4 mills of taxes the board of trustees will soon impose.
“They did what they felt was best for them,” Williams said of the no-voters. “Thank God, there weren’t many who supported what was best for them. It’s over with. They gave it their best shot; we gave it a lot better shot.”
Ever the astronomer, Williams looked up toward the smoky, red moon glowing above the celebration Tuesday night after the dust had settled and vote was decided.
“When you’ve got a first-quarter moon and you vote for something, it’s always going to go your way,” Williams said.
What about the other side of the vote?
"They don’t understand first-quarter moons,” he added.
Dalby, who also was a candidate for the college board of trustees, received 640 votes, and his mom, Kimberly Glass Dalby, got 712 votes.
She said the fact that they got that many votes was a bit comforting.
“It makes me feel like, OK, there is hope, there are conservatives out there, so we do have them here,” she said.
Dalby said he will be keeping a close eye on the college board when it starts to get going.
“I’ll probably be sitting down at the board meetings once it’s all said and done, see how much corruption they’ve got going right off the bat,” he said.
Had the Dalbys made it onto the seven-person board, McGrath said the board could still function well.
“They’re not bad people,” he said of the no-voters. “I understand why they voted the way they did. I would have been happy to work with them. I appreciate their stances, they were educated on why they were taking that stance. While I didn’t agree with that, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have merit.”
Jason Linduska, who was one of the 16 trustee candidates to not make it onto the board, also attended the election night gathering.
“From day one, people are like, do you think you have a chance? It’s not about having a chance,” he said. “It’s about supporting and showing support at a different level. It’s about putting your name out there and showing people you can be part of that process.”
As a local educator, he said that with the college now under local control, he looks forward to advocating for more opportunities for his high school students to continue their education in Gillette.
“It was always super important to me to advocate for the common person to be OK doing this,” Linduska said.
Tracy Wasserburger took classes at Gillette College back when her college classroom was just a modular trailer situated behind the hospital. After being elected as a district board trustee, she said she was excited for the opportunities an independent Gillette College can bring to Campbell County.
“Our community needs to take our credit,” Wasserburger said. “In Campbell County, we need to take that credit for what we’ve done. And we don’t need to be controlled by anyone else 100 miles away.”