CHEYENNE — Even though none of the three finalists to run the state Department of Education are from Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead said he’s impressed by their depth of knowledge on education issues and their eagerness to move to the state.
Mead said at a news conference Friday that he has interviewed all the finalists and that all three see Wyoming as a great opportunity because of the state’s strong support for public education.
“They assured me that that’s not necessarily the way it is everywhere around the country, so I was just thrilled with the interviews and the passion of the people I interviewed, making it a difficult choice,” he said.
Mead said he had expected to appoint a permanent director of the agency by Friday, but he needs some more time because of the quality of the candidates.
The state Board of Education recommended the three candidates after more than 80 applied for the position.
The three finalists are: Tony Apostle, a retired superintendent of Puyallup Public Schools in Puyallup, Wash.; Richard Crandall, a current state senator in Arizona and past chair of the Arizona Senate and House education committees; and Norman Ridder, a superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Mo.
Mead and the Legislature enacted a new law this past winter removing the superintendent of public instruction as head of the Education Department. Instead, the department will be administered by a director appointed by the governor.
Current Superintendent Cindy Hill is challenging the law in court. The state Supreme Court is expected to hear the lawsuit later this year.
The law also was the subject of a failed referendum, and the debate leading to its passage prompted Mead to create an inquiry into how the Education Department has been run under Hill and previous superintendents.
Mead said the three finalists are aware of the situation but are still eager to take over the department, which oversees a budget of about $1 billion a year and employs about 150 people.
In February, Mead appointed Cathy MacPherson, a longtime Wyoming attorney in Rawlins, to look into concerns about how the agency was being run in recent years after agency employees had raised misgivings about personnel, budget and other issues.
Mead said the inquiry by MacPherson is taking longer than he initially expected.
“In talking to her in terms of just process I know that she’s being very thorough and it’s taken longer than she’s anticipated, but she’s trying to cover every base,” he said.
Regarding the failed referendum, Mead said he believes Wyoming’s standards for citizen initiated laws and referendums are appropriate.
Public policy advocates say Wyoming’s initiative and referendum process is among the most restrictive in the nation, meaning residents have little chance of reaching the statewide ballot with their cause.
The Wyoming Constitution Party failed to collect enough signatures to repeal the superintendent law.
The referendum sponsors had less than 90 days to collect more than 37,000 valid signatures. Besides the tight timeline to collect a lot of signatures, Wyoming’s process also forces sponsors to collect signatures from most of the state’s 23 counties.
“They are tough, there’s no question about it, but I think they’re appropriate,” Mead said.