CHEYENNE – Several former Wyoming Department of Education employees said Monday they believed the agency misused federal funds while Cindy Hill was in charge.
But a state House investigation is far from over after the first day of witness testimony here, where lawmakers are investigating whether Hill committed any impeachable offenses. Testimonies continued into Monday evening.
Witnesses under oath before press time Monday told firsthand accounts of questionable hiring practices, federal funds paying for programs that didn’t meet grant qualifications, uncomfortable team building meetings and a culture of retaliation under the state superintendent of public instruction’s leadership.
Gail Eisenhauer, a Wyoming Department of Education employee who joined Hill’s transition team shortly after Hill was elected in 2010, said she was asked to sign an at-will agreement, which would allow her to be fired without reason at any time, or accept a demotion after she submitted a complaint against a senior member of Hill’s leadership team.
Eisenhauer said at least one employee’s salary was paid from several budgets which had little or no relation to the work the employee performed. She said tutors hired to work in a one-on-one reading program did not meet the requirements of the grant used to fund it. When Eisenhauer refused to sign one contract related to the reading program, another member of Hill’s leadership team signed on her behalf, without her consent, according to documents provided to the committee.
Tiffany Dobler, a special programs director during Hill’s tenure at the WDE, said the way she was asked to pay for a teacher-to-teacher development program was an improper use of federal funds earmarked for special education. Dobler said she contacted the U.S. Department of Education and was told the funds should not be used for the program, called SpLit, because it taught teaching strategies that had been proven ineffective for special education students.
“Special ed funding should be going for special ed practices, and this was a general curriculum [program],” Dobler said.
Though no articles of impeachment have been filed to date, the investigation could be a first step toward impeaching Hill, a Republican.
Hill has denied any wrongdoing and questions the objectivity of the process used to investigate her. She said the 16 witnesses the committee called to testify between Monday and Wednesday were “a small group of disgruntled [employees],” according to a public statement released Monday. She told the Star-Tribune a federal audit could settle the committee’s fiscal questions, but none has been conducted yet.
State investigators got several details wrong when compiling a report about Hill, witnesses said Monday.
Two former agency employees said facts regarding their work at the agency under Hill were incorrect in the MacPherson report, an inquiry which Gov. Matt Mead requested after a law stripped Hill of much of her power last year and gave the WDE’s administrative duties to a governor-appointed director. Hill retained the superintendent’s state constitutional duties, such as serving on state boards.
A former employee, Joy Mockelmann, was recorded in the report as having written an application for a grant now in the spotlight as a potential misuse of federal funds. Mockelmann told lawmakers Monday she did not write the grant, but it was not uncommon for her to provide assistance in writing similar grants to other school districts. According to the report, Mockelmann said someone tweaked the grant after she finished writing it to push more funds into a reading program on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Reading scores improved in the year following the program, according to data from the statewide assessment, PAWS.
After the committee finishes taking testimony Wednesday, it will write a draft report with conclusions and suggestions for future legislation. Both the WDE and Hill’s office will have a chance to comment on the report before it becomes final, said committee chairman and state House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette.
Impeachable offenses in Wyoming include high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance, according to the state Constitution. A vote from the majority of the state House of Representatives can initiate an impeachment proceeding, which would then be tried by the Senate.
If Hill is impeached, she cannot hold any other public office. She plans to launch her bid for governor on Wednesday in Newcastle, according to statements made during the hearing in Cheyenne.
Eleven more witnesses, including Hill, are scheduled to testify later this week.