Wyo. public schools' chief, voters face power loss

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Associated Press

Posted on January 19, 2013 at 10:04 AM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Reacting to a recent mistake at a legislative committee hearing, Wyoming's public schools' chief said, "I'm learning."

Some members of the state Legislature, however, say that after two years as superintendent of public instruction, Cindy Hill has had plenty of time to understand the job.

They want to strip her office of power, saying children in the state can't afford to wait any longer for her to figure things out.

A proposal advancing through the Wyoming Legislature would hand Hill's authority over the state's public schools to a newly created director's post.

The bill, which has support from all legislative leaders in the state House and Senate, also would serve to take power from voters, who elect the public schools' chief. The proposed changes would put the decision of who runs the Education Department in the hands of the governor, who would appoint the new director.

If passed, the legislation would take effect before Hill's four-year term expires and would represent one the biggest such changes in Wyoming state government in decades.

Under the proposal, the superintendent of public instruction would remain an office elected by voters but would have little authority over education. Hill has said her role would be so dramatically diminished that it would become "ceremonial." Education decisions would be made by the governor's appointee.

The bill has raised concerns about increasing the power of the governor and diminishing voter's influence over public education.

Voters elected Hill "knowing what the duties of that office held," said Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange.

He added that Hill "was duly elected and sworn in."

Meier said lawmakers were effectively trying to overturn the voters' decision, framing it as a legislative overreach. He said such a major change should not occur until at least after she has finished out her term.

Proponents of the bill, however, note that legislators also are elected officials and point out that state constitution empowers lawmakers to determine the superintendent's duties.

"We recognize that we provide the legislative directive to carry out the will of the people," said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.

He added, "And we also recognize that the Wyoming Constitution provides that if those (directives) aren't carried out that we can restructure them."

Supporters also say that the change is necessary to save the state's ambitious school reform effort. They say that Hill's ineffectiveness has set the overhaul plan back severely.

Wyoming, currently, is among 13 states where voters elect the top education official.

That number had been 14, but Oregon last year removed its superintendent of public instruction as an elected office and consolidated education authority under a board selected by the governor.

As schools have demanded larger shares of state budgets, governors "have felt that they should have more responsibility and authority over education," said David Kysilko, chief knowledge officer with the Arlington, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education.

Wyoming's superintendent oversees an Education Department with a $1.9 billion two-year budget and about 150 employees. It works with the appointed State Board of Education, the Legislature and the state's 48 school districts to educate more than 89,000 students.

Gov. Matt Mead has not endorsed or rejected the bill. He says, however, that it's an "important first step" toward advancing Wyoming's education reform efforts.

Hill vehemently opposes the proposal, saying it would place Wyoming's education system into the hands of a bureaucrat who is not as responsive to voters an elected superintendent. She also defends her performance, saying her agency is doing its job well.

Hill maintains the bill has its roots in trying to increase state control over public education, which in the past has been entrusted to locally elected school boards.

"I would say the bigger picture is one of local control versus centralized power," Hill said. "I think that's a huge issue."

She added that certain legislators, whom she has referred to as "good ol' boys," are out to get her for personal reasons.

Supporters of the bill maintain that the Education Department under Hill has failed to carry out duties required by state law and has redirected money within the agency to programs not authorized by the Legislature.

A recent report from legislative-appointed Education Department monitors said the department hindered the efforts of other entities involved in the state's education overhaul effort.

The overhaul was launched several years ago after the state began pumping $1 billion a year into K-12 education — among the highest spending per student in the nation — but failed to see its students test scores rise above the national average.

The report noted a high rate of employee turnover within the department, saying that nearly half of the staff in place has left the agency since Hill was elected, draining institutional knowledge and experience.

Lawmakers behind the accountability effort and the proposed appointed director argue the two issues are related because reform can't proceed with Hill overseeing the Education Department.

"We can't have two more years of the two years we just had when it comes to education accountability," said Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Under the bill, the superintendent of public instruction would remain a statewide elected official along with the governor, secretary of state, treasurer and auditor.

The superintendent's duties on various state boards and commissions would remain intact. In addition, the superintendent would be assigned education duties, including reporting yearly to the Legislature on the state of public education in Wyoming and serving on several boards, such as the State Board of Education and the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

The idea of revamping of how the state manages its K-12 education system has been discussed sporadically since the mid-1980s as public education has become more complex to administer.

Also, it's not the first time the Legislature has changed the duties of a statewide elected officer. In a pair of decisions in 1989 and 1992, lawmakers made sweeping changes to the state auditor's position.

"We're basically continuing the logic," said Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, "of what we did back then."

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