State schools chief Cindy Hill is back in charge of the Wyoming Department of Education, following a final order from a district court judge that reinstated her as the department's top official.
Multiple employees resigned from the department after a district court judge ruled Friday most of the law that removed Hill from power last year was unconstitutional, said Dean Fausset, director of the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information. Fausset could not say exactly how many workers left.
Gov. Matt Mead told the Star-Tribune on Monday he had heard of three resignations at the department.
Hill’s staff is working on details of her return and plans to move into vacant space at the Department of Education, said John Masters, Hill’s deputy superintendent.
The unconstitutional law, known as Senate File 104 or the "Hill bill," left the elected superintendent with mostly ceremonial duties and relocated her office into a building separate from the Department of Education. Hill challenged the constitutionality of the law shortly after it passed last year. The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in January, and sent the case back to Laramie County District Court for final proceedings.
Hill's team met twice Monday with officials from Mead’s staff, the attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration and Information to talk over details concerning her return, Masters said.
Meanwhile, Rich Crandall, the Republican appointed to lead the department after Hill's ouster last year, is working from Mead's office on a temporary basis, Mead said.
“I have asked him to work in my office for an indefinite period of time in the transition process, so if there’s questions about where a particular project is, or challenges on it, that he would be readily available,” Mead said.
Mead said he does not know how long the transition will take. Crandall will be compensated out of the governor’s budget at the same rate he has been paid since he started in August, said Renny MacKay, Mead’s spokesman. Crandall is salaried at $205,000 a year.
“Hopefully the transition is short,” Mead said. “[Hill is] over there today and hopefully will get her office moved over there within a couple days.”
Mead signed the controversial bill into law last year after attorneys from the nonpartisan Legislative Service Office and attorney general’s office reviewed the legislation and called it constitutional.
“Nobody wanted to bring into law an unconstitutional bill,” Mead said. “So in hindsight, I don’t think anybody says we wished we would have done that. Having said that, you have to recognize that at the time there was issues on accountability.”
Mead said the Legislature acted in good faith to try to deal with disagreement over whether Hill was complying with legislative directives and concerns about employees being mistreated in the department.
Though lawmakers tried to do through legislation what could be done only through a constitutional amendment, Mead said voters should consider an amendment to change the constitutional provision for an elected superintendent to become an appointed one. An amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate before heading to a popular vote, where it would require a simple majority.
“If it was going to change, I think obviously it has to be a constitutional amendment,” Mead said. “If that would get us on the same page, I think that would be an acceptable way to go.”
The Wyoming Department of Education is a different organization today than it was during Hill's tenure, said Jim Verley, a department content specialist who was appointed as a liaison between the department and the superintendent's office last year.
"[Hill] is coming back to a very different organization," Verley said. "I think we were always dedicated, but [under Hill] sometimes there was a little uncertainty about the direction the department was going."
Mary Kay Hill, a policy adviser to Mead, said the state will not appeal the district court's decision. Mead recommends that any legislative changes to the structure of the superintendent’s position should not become effective until after the first of the year, when a new superintendent is elected, she said.
An independent audit released last month found questionable management practices in the Education Department when it was under Hill's control. The audit pointed to "management override" of internal financial controls and recommended the state attorney general and the U.S. Education Department review the department further.
In an email to department staff Friday, Crandall thanked his employees and said he planned to "stick around for a little while."
"As I pack up my office this weekend I have so much to be grateful for over the past nine months, and all with no regrets for accepting the position," Crandall wrote.
Hill declined to speak to the Star-Tribune for this story. Her spokesman, Travis Hoff, said in an email that Hill will not speak with the Star-Tribune "on this or any other matter."