CASPER, Wyo. — An audit has found that the Wyoming Education Department is unable to meet important data and information functions because of understaffing and fundamental operational issues, underscoring problems at an agency that has been the subject of political wrangling among lawmakers and the state's top elected officials.
"In the past several years, the department has experienced considerable upheaval, including several changes in leadership and related policy objectives; staff attrition, particularly in the Information Management unit; and difficulty meeting federal and state information requirements," according to the report presented Monday by the independent firm, RTI International, to the Legislature's Joint Education Committee.
The audit recommended a number of solutions, including hiring three new staff members in the unit as soon as possible.
The audit comes after Republican Gov. Matt Mead and the GOP-controlled Legislature enacted a new law this past winter removing Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill as head of the agency in favor of a director appointed by the governor. Hill, a Republican who is one of five statewide elected officials, was removed at the end of January, losing much of her powers and duties.
Hill has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which took effect in the middle of her four-year term. She was elected in 2010.
Part of the reason for the new law was dissatisfaction with how Hill was managing the agency and concern that she was hindering school reform efforts by not providing needed data. A separate legislative liaison report released last year also was critical of how the agency was run under Hill.
Hill, who already has announced a bid to run for governor in 2014, reacted to the audit by blaming Mead and lawmakers for meddling with the agency's staff during her administration.
Mead transferred a number of the agency's information management staff to the Department of Enterprise Technology Services, a newly created agency to consolidate Wyoming's government technology services, Hill said. The transferred staff included specialists and not just general computer technicians, she said.
"I talked to the governor every step of the way as this transpired," Hill said. "It was really concerning. That's an understatement, but this governor knows exactly every bit of this."
In an email through spokesman Renny MacKay, the governor's office responded that a similar report was provided to the Joint Education Committee at a meeting in July 2012 attended by Hill.
"No action was taken to address the problems. Interim director Jim Rose is working through solutions now," the email said.
Rep. Matt Teeters, co-chairman of the joint committee, also said the problems with the agency's data unit have been known for some time, although it's difficult to determine "what was from prior administrations and what was from the last two years."
"The lack of staffing, no doubt, was created in the last two years," Teeters, R-Lingle, said.
The Education Department has an annual budget of around $1 billion and is responsible for collecting, maintaining and providing information about K-12 education in the state. The data and information it collects ranges from statewide assessment scores to school staff salaries. The agency's data function is key to implementing Wyoming's recent public school reform efforts to make its students better prepared for college and careers after high school.
The report prompted conversation among committee members about the need for reorganizing the department, which employs about 150 people. The panel decided to ask the governor to cease transferring any more Education Department employees until the agency has time to rebuild its data unit.
Rose, who took over as interim director of the department in March, wasn't surprised by the audit, saying he recognized the problems with the information management unit when he found seven of the 23 positions in the unit were vacant.
"We had serious issues of overtaxed staff, trying to push reports out and be compliant with deadlines and reporting requirements in the face of a third of their colleagues being gone," Rose said.