Battle over superintendent bill intensifies

2013-01-21T19:59:00Z 2013-02-06T09:29:08Z Battle over superintendent bill intensifiesBy ELYSIA CONNER Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
January 21, 2013 7:59 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill named seven people — including sponsors of a bill to strip power from her position, a former legislator and her opponent in 2010 — as part of a power structure that felt threatened by her and criticized her actions to make the state Department of Education more efficient.

She said a bill to hand over duties of her elected position to an appointed director is the latest in legislative efforts to return to that power structure.

Sponsors have juggled criticism that the bill was aimed at Hill, while maintaining that Senate File 104 is legal under the Wyoming Constitution. Some lawmakers hope to address the constitutional questions by introducing a companion bill that State Board of Education members be elected rather than appointed by the governor.

SF104 mandates the State Board to recommend three names to the governor, who would then appoint a director of the WDE.

"There has been a concerted effort to return all the power to the power structure that was in place prior to my election with the various tactics described, with SF104 being the most current example," Hill said in a prepared statement to the Star-Tribune.

Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, a bill co-sponsor, said there have been many bills drafted since the 1970s to do what the education governance bill proposes, because the system is outdated and dysfunctional.

“I don’t think Cindy is the reason we brought the bill,” Teeters said. “It certainly is a catalyst for why we need to do it because it’s an example of how bad it can go.”

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody said the bill is driven by the need to get the state's education accountability effort back on track, and was introduced to address serious problems that have arisen under Hill.

“We’re elected officials as well,” Coe said. “We have an elected responsibility to pursue and make sure what we put in law is followed, and this has not happened with the current administration or the current superintendent.”

In a guest column that will appear later this week in the Star-Tribune but is available online now, Coe said, "It was introduced to address serious problems that have arisen under the leadership of Supt. Cindy Hill."

Coe said if the bill passes, it will bring stability to the department and protect the state’s investments in education, adding that there is a reason why most states have an appointed education chief. Wyoming is one of 13 states to elect theirs.

“I have great confidence in the governor to be able to make a good decision and do that,” Coe said.

Hill had previously stated that an issue of local control versus centralized power is the bigger picture when looking at this bill, and that it has personal motivations behind it. She elaborated in the prepared statement that those at the local level have felt an incremental loss of local control over the past 20 years.

A set of relationships in the existing power structure over education existed when she was elected, Hill said. That included Coe and Mike Massie, who served with Coe on the Senate Education Committee and ran against her in 2010.

“Suddenly, the existing power structure had someone new to deal with,” she said.

Two educational liaisons tasked with monitoring the progress of the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act all had "high-priced, sole-source contracts" with the department that she discontinued, she said. Hill added it’s no coincidence they wrote reports critical of the department.

Natrona County School District Trustee Audrey Cotherman, who was deputy state superintendent of public instruction from 1979 to 1990, suspects the bill is a personal vendetta.

“They are trying to make policy on the basis of personality, and it’s an outrage,” she said. “It’s not even very mature.”

She disagrees with the bill because voters would not choose the leader of the education department, as they do now. She said sometimes voters choose good candidate, and other times, they don’t. But she believes there’s no guarantee a governor-appointed director would result in a more competent leader.

“This kind of a change cannot be about Cindy Hill,” Cotherman said. “It has to be about education, it has to be about the constitution, and it has to be about democracy and self-government.”

Sponsors pointed to issues dating to 1985 as examples of flaws in the system.

The problem is inherent in a system where superintendents campaign on a list of promises they don’t have statutory authority to fulfill, according to Teeters.

The Legislature and the State Board of Education create policy. What the state needs, Teeters said, is a bureaucrat to who can consistently carry out what’s in law, rather than an elected person with political motivations.

Teeters said responsibilities for the superintendent also have become exponentially more complicated even in the last decade with increasing federal regulations.

“There shouldn’t be any political interpretation as to how you’re going to implement federal funding,” Teeters said.

Coe, R-Cody, also noted a legislative management audit report in 1985 that noted friction between the superintendent, State Board of Education, Wyoming Department of Education and the Legislature.

Hill wrote that occasional friction between a superintendent and members of the Legislature is natural, productive and part of plan to create checks and balances.

The viewpoint that the superintendent should not have a different agenda than the Legislature is contrary to the design of the Wyoming Constitution and "suppresses a full exploration of ideas," according to Hill.

“We’re the policy-makers, so if things don’t go well with the policy that we put in statute, then there’s friction,” Coe said. Many past conflicts dealt with duties prescribed by law, Coe said, citing a 2005 Wyoming Legislative Service Office report that also addresses the history.

“There is a governance problem that has existed, and I don’t know if I’d call it so much governance as maybe turf protection,” Coe said.

A debate waged in the 1989 Legislature for a proposal to appoint a superintendent of public instruction. It was part of a package of reorganization bills, which created the current government structure. That proposal failed in the House after passing the Senate. The bills were based on a 1989 Dave Ferrari Study in State Government Efficiency and meant to improve government efficiency, effectiveness and structure.

At the time, members of the Joint Legislative-Executive Efficiency Study Committee said an appointed superintendent would inject more accountability into a department responsible for one-third of state spending and that modern demands required a move to fewer, better-controlled agencies, according to Casper Star-Tribune archives. Coe was among 21 senators who voted for a proposed constitutional amendment for an appointed superintendent.

There have been smooth-running administrations over the years, and others that weren’t, Coe said. For instance, Trent Blankenship’s term from 2002-05 was marked by publicized conflicts with the governor and other state officials, as well as two audits that found spending irregularities.

Blankenship took action that crippled the state’s first crack at accountability — a measure called body of evidence, used to determine whether high school students have learned enough to graduate — according to Teeters.

“There are many examples where superintendents have not agreed with the law," Teeters said, "and because of it, they just choose to enforce the parts that they like."

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