Judge promises quick action on Hill suit

2013-03-14T08:07:00Z 2013-04-03T11:15:05Z Judge promises quick action on Hill suitBy JOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 14, 2013 8:07 am  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- A state district judge in Cheyenne was urged Thursday to stop the "runaway freight train" that allowed the removal of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill as head of the Wyoming Department of Education in late January.

District Judge Thomas Campbell heard arguments on behalf of Hill and the advocates of the removal law, then promised to rule within a week whether to restore her duties and whether to send the case straight to the state Supreme Court.

Hill's attorney, Angela Dougherty, said that the removal law, originally Senate File 104, is causing irreparable harm to the educational system because it prohibits the superintendent from doing the job for which she was elected.

Hill may not be able to undo some of the decisions made in the past 45 days since the bill became law, Dougherty added during a two-hour hearing.

"Even if people didn't like the way she ran the department, she was elected for four years," Dougherty said. Hill is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt implementation of the law until the state Supreme Court can decide whether the changes it authorizes are constitutional.

Dougherty said the Supreme Court's recent decision that the term limits law for four of the five elected state officials is unconstitutional indicates Hill's lawsuit is likely to succeed on its merits. The Supreme Court ruled that term limits can only be imposed through a constitutional amendment, not a statute.

Hill's lawsuit contends that the law is unconstitutional because it removed her general authority over Wyoming public schools. The change also nullified the votes of the people who elected Hill in 2010 to serve a four-year term, her lawsuit states.

Gov. Matt Mead signed the bill into law. He appointed Jim Rose, the director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, as interim director of Wyoming Department of Education.

Hill and part of her staff were moved to a separate office in a separate building in the state Capitol complex.

Hill testified Thursday that people are confused about who is in charge of education in the state. "Now when people call to collaborate, I don't have the authority to make a decision," she said. During the past 45 days, she said, she has not had "general supervision" of the public schools as required by the Wyoming Constitution.

Hill testified that she had decided not to apply for a flexiblity waiver from the targets in the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind. The Department of Education announced last month that the state would apply for the waiver.

Hill also said her philosophy that teachers should not be taken out of the classroom for training seems to be changing under the department's interim director.

Her current duties, which include prevention of head injuries and control of hazardous materials in the schools, are not "general supervision” of schools, she said. The governor is now responsible for general supervision of the schools, she said.

Hill said she now has a budget of $1.3 million with five positions out of seven authorized. When she was director of the Department of Education she said oversaw a budget of $1.6 billion and a staff of 150.

Peter K. Michael, chief deputy attorney general, said Hill still is a voting member of a number of state boards and commissions, including the State Board of Land Commissioners, the School Facilities Commission and the Community College Commission.

Michael pointed out that the 1969 Legislature created by statute the state education department and designated the state superintendent as chief administrative officer.

Senate File 104 took out the statutory language that made the school superintendent the administrative officer, which is different from her general supervisory powers, Michael said. He said the evidence of irreparable harm is vague. Hill, he said, "believes that without her hand on the tiller the state Department of Education will crater."

A Wheatland couple, Clara and Kerry Powers, who also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, testified that they felt their ballots for Hill were wasted because of the new law.

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