Senate panel advances schools superintendent bill

2013-01-11T07:12:00Z 2013-02-06T09:29:09Z Senate panel advances schools superintendent billThe Associated Press The Associated Press
January 11, 2013 7:12 am  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A proposed bill to drastically reduce the administrative role of Wyoming's top state public schools official cleared two Senate committees Friday. Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill said the proposal would make her office a ceremonial position.

Senate File 104 was approved by the Senate Education Committee without debate on a 5-0 vote and then won a 4-1 endorsement from the Senate Appropriations Committee. The measure goes to the full Senate for consideration.

A proposal would remove the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education. It would create a new director of the agency who would be appointed by the governor.

Hill and other opponents say the bill diminishes one of the five statewide elected offices, while supporters say it would help take the political dysfunction out of state education.

SF104 transfers all Education Department divisions, agencies, programs, positions, personnel, property, budgets and functions to the new director. The law would take effect when passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Matt Mead.

Mead would be required to "immediately" appoint an interim director to oversee transfer of the department's administrative duties and then appoint a director by Dec. 1.

Under the proposal, the superintendent's main education duties would include preparing an annual report for the Legislature on the general status of public schools and administering the teacher of the year award. The superintendent would remain on various boards and commissions, including the State Board of Education and the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

The bill comes in the wake of criticism by lawmakers and others of Hill's administration of the Education Department. In particular, her department has been accused of setting back and hindering the state's ambitious public education efforts by failing to complete tasks specified in state law.

Hill, a Republican elected about two years ago, said that while the superintendent's position would remain a statewide elected office under the bill, the proposal would leave the office as a ceremonial position with little value.

"If people are voting for a state superintendent of public instruction it is because they honestly believe the person can and will accomplish the job," she said. "If you strip away the power to get the work done, you have stripped away the voice of the people."

She said the bill would leave the Education Department up to a bureaucrat who is not as responsive to the voters or as dedicated to the task of educating children.

"Bureaucrats are risk avoiders, seeking rather to protect his or her job," she said.

She said any changes to the job should be made by amending the Wyoming Constitution.

The superintendent of public instruction is one of five statewide elected officials. The others are the governor, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer. The Wyoming Constitution entrusts the superintendent with "general supervision of the public schools" but specifies that the job's duties and powers must be prescribed by law, which the Legislature determines.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said amending the Constitution was unnecessary and would take too long, delaying education reform even longer.

A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval from each legislative chamber and must be approved by voters in the next general election, which would be 2014.

Coe, one of the bill's sponsors, said the proposal doesn't change any of the constitutional duties of the superintendent.

"I don't happen to agree with the perception that we're going against the vote of the people," he said. "We're talking about the huge, heavy lift for the Department of Education as it relates to education accountability. Clearly, the cooperation and the performance out of the department has not been there."

However, Coe said the bill isn't solely the result of problems with the Hill administration, noting that there have been issues with the state's public education system since 1985 that have created a "somewhat unstable environment for the operation of the education in the state of Wyoming."

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