Who’s Running Education in Wyoming?

Until now, Wyoming’s public school system has been overseen by a Superintendent of Public Education. On January 29, Wyoming’s governor signed into law a new system for appointing a Director to replace the Superintendent — only to be met with an immediate lawsuit by the current Superintendent. The Billings Gazette reports that the Superintendent, Cindy Hill, hopes to get a court injunction against the new law pending constitutional review.

At stake is whether Wyoming residents will continue to elect their Superintendents or whether, as in the new law, governors will appoint Directors to oversee the budget, stripping elected Superintendents of most power.

Elected in 2010, Cindy Hill is a former teacher who worked with at-risk students. She was the Principal of Carey Junior High School in Cheyenne.

But Hill has been a lightning rod for controversy. A populist candidate with Tea Party backing, she tried to make reforms in the department and ended up clashing with may staff and legislators. The department saw high turnover and was less effective in running the state’s schools.

Her tenure so far has included accusations that she improperly redirected state money to programs not authorized by the Legislature and hindered legislative reform efforts to better prepare Wyoming students for college and careers. Hill has defended her administration of the agency and denied obstructing education reform laws.

Because Hill was elected and has two more years of her term to fill, she could not be fired. The Legislature chose to create a new post of oversight, a Director of Education who will work in parallel with the elected superintendent. Hill attended the bill’s signing into law, but immediately after, she served the governor with her lawsuit. She believes constitutional issues are at stake:

Calling this “a watershed moment in Wyoming history,” Hill said if the exercise of power in Senate File 104 is allowed to stand, the Legislature can strip other state office-holders of power as well.

Hill’s lawsuit, filed with two supporters, names Mead personally as a defendant. It calls the new law a “takeover” of the superintendent’s office, and seeks a restraining order until judicial review can be completed.

After the signing, Gov. Matt Mead appointed the executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission as interim Director of Education. Jim Rose says that his main work will be to find a highly qualified candidate to take over as permanent Director. He will not consider himself a candidate.

Members of the state Board of Education will select three candidates, from which the governor will name a permanent director by Dec. 1. The person selected must be confirmed by the Wyoming Senate.

Governor Mead said that signing the bill was a very tough decision. He took into account not just issues with Hill, but also many structural problems that have plagued the department for years.
“This was a very tough decision for me,” Mead said. “I don’t think anybody would view this as a celebration. I think they would view this as a duty that we must move forward for the kids in Wyoming.”
He added that he hopes he can work with Superintendent Hill in the transition of duties. Citing her passion for education, he said he believes that they can work together.

Wyoming’s public schools turn out the highest percentage of high school graduates in the nation at 91.9%. The state is not heavily college-bound, though. Slightly less than a quarter of adults have completed a Bachelor’s degree.

02 1, 2013
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