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CASPER, Wyo. — Without approval from the Legislature, Wyoming Department of Education officials have diverted funds intended for specific groups of students and programs toward a new teacher professional development program.

Top department officials will defend their 2013-14 budget a second time Monday and have been asked to present a budget and description of the Teacher 2 Teacher program initiated under Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, who took office in January 2011.

The department has paid more than $218,000 from at least eight budgets to sustain the program, according to a Star-Tribune analysis of budget expenditures obtained from the department. Most has been spent from budgets directly related to instruction, but money was also spent from the budgets for court-ordered placement of students and juvenile detention and federal vocational education. In some instances, salaries were paid with state money while travel was paid for with federal money.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, questioned the department’s creative budgeting during Joint Appropriations Committee hearings this month. The Teacher 2 Teacher program is mentioned in one sentence of the department’s 177-page request, under “School Improvement.” Nicholas said department officials were “sidestepping” the appropriations process and the $580,000 program should be listed as a separate budget request.

“The process is: If you want to start a new initiative, you create the initiative, you vet it, you provide for a budget, we vet it, joint education vets it, and it goes up or down in the process,” Nicholas said.

The department has also pulled funds from different budgets to support its “summer camp” workshops held in August in Casper and the Principal Leadership Academy, according to department expenditure reports. The department is using administrative funds that would otherwise not go to schools from these budgets for the Teacher 2 Teacher program, Christine Steele, deputy superintendent, told lawmakers Jan. 13.

“It is the purpose of administrative funds to support or promote or help districts and teachers in certain program areas,” Steele said. “How we do that is the focus from which we approach the use of the funds.”

The department contracted with 15 teachers to administer workshops on a reading strategy geared to improving performance on the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students, or PAWS, during fall 2011. Department Deputy Superintendent Sheryl Lain said in May the workshops were a response to lower-than-desired test scores in reading in 2010, scores the department discarded one month later.

Teachers were contracted for up to $17,000 worth of work and travel expenses. Most are currently employed by school districts, and the majority are from Cheyenne. The department contracted Cheyenne teacher Amy Enzi, daughter of U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, for $67,000 to coordinate the workshops, which are held Friday evenings and Saturdays so teachers don’t miss school.

Teachers who attend both days of the workshop and complete follow-up work are eligible for continuing education or University of Wyoming credit and a $200 stipend. A minimum of five such credits is required when teachers renew their five-year teaching licenses.

School districts asked for this professional development, John Masters, attorney to the superintendent, told the Star-Tribune on Friday. Masters said officials have not formally gathered input about the workshops but heard anecdotally of districts’ and teachers’ desire for them.

“We believe teachers teaching teachers is an effective way of delivering professional development and is a mechanism we’ll probably try to use for a variety of professional development areas,” Masters said.

Hill told lawmakers and the Star-Tribune that 2,500 Wyoming teachers have been trained through the program, which would be more than one-third of all licensed teachers. But only 703 teachers have completed the trainings and obtained continuing education credits for the workshops, according to records obtained from the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board.

Educators have questioned whether the state department should be providing direct instruction to teachers.

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Joel Dvorak, superintendent of Natrona County School District, said the department at the state level should be working on district-level improvement and school leaders should be working on improving classroom instruction.

“If you jump over two systems at the state level to work on the classroom system, you’re just not going to get much bang for your buck,” Dvorak said. “They’re making an assumption the (principals) don’t know how to direct training for their classrooms.”

The latest round of workshops are targeted for special education teachers. A federal special education grant is funding the workshops, yet the state Special Education Department was not involved beyond initial planning, said Peg Brown-Clark, director of special programs for the Education Department.

Brown-Clark said her staff members gave suggestions to the core group of teachers on how to make the fall workshops applicable for special education teachers, but their suggestions didn’t happen. The department is collecting participant feedback, which Brown-Clark said her staff members will use for future planning.

Terri Alleman, a Natrona County special education teacher, said the workshops have been helpful. Alleman was hired by the department to sit in the workshops with the teachers and lead small group discussions for $200 a session. Alleman said the workshop leaders hired by the department discuss best practices in teaching reading and writing, and small groups then discuss how to adapt the skills for special education students.

Alleman said workshop leaders told participants the best practices taught will improve test scores so the Legislature won’t cut education funding.

The workshop leaders “are not saying, ‘We’re better than you,’” Alleman said. “They’re saying, ‘This is what’s coming down and we want to join with you because you’re in the trenches.’ We don’t usually hear from the state unless something bad is going on. This is positive.”

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