Gov. Matt Mead signed into law the most dramatic changes to the duties and powers of a statewide elected official in decades, and Superintendent Cindy Hill answered with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the changes made to her office.
The new law signed Tuesday replaces the superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education with a director appointed by the governor.
As directed by the law, Mead appointed Jim Rose, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, as interim director to take over supervision of the department and execute the transition until a permanent director is appointed later this year.
During a news conference Mead told how he studied the bill over the weekend and took into consideration the concerns of the Legislature and opponents of the bill.
He also noted the structural problems in the education system that has been an issue for years.
“This was a very tough decision for me,” Mead said. “I don’t think anybody would view this as a celebration. I think they would view this as a duty that we must move forward on for the kids in Wyoming.”
He said state Attorney General Gregory Phillips issued an opinion that said the law is constitutional.
Mead also said he has been meeting with Hill and believes they can work together during the transition of duties.
“It’s a difficult situation for the superintendent. We’re both on a tough road but we’re committed to work through it. She obviously has a passion for education. I want to get it right,” Mead said.
Hill attended Mead’s signing ceremony in the governor’s office and accompanied her attorney in serving the lawsuit to the governor after he had finished. The lawsuit was filed in Laramie County District Court on Tuesday, and Judge Thomas Campbell was assigned to the case. No court dates were immediately set.
Hill later conducted her own press conference, saying she and two of her supporters, Kerry and Clara Powers, filed the lawsuit. The lawsuit names Mead as a defendant. It seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the “takeover” of the superintendent’s office pending a court review of the constitutional question.
The lawsuit says the ousting of a constitutionally created and elected office-holder is, by its very nature, irreparable harm and violates the consent of the people and nullifies their vote. Hill was elected to a four-year term in 2010.
Hill said her lawsuit “challenges the raw, unchecked exercise of power of the legislative branch.”
“The leadership in the Senate and the House, by pushing through this measure with great haste, limiting public input, and engaging in other questionable tactics, have let us down,” Hill said, reading from a prepared statement.
“And today, the governor has let us down,” she added.
Calling this “a watershed moment in Wyoming history,” Hill said if the exercise of power in Senate File 104 is allowed to stand, the Legislature can strip other state office-holders of power as well.
The power comes from the people, she added.
By filing the lawsuit, Hill said she is “shining a bright light on what has been and is happening in the halls of the Legislature and in our governor’s office.”
Although Hill thumped the governor in her statement, she said they had an amicable meeting after his news conference.
By the end of the week, Hill said, she and her employees expect to know what the transition will entail.
Her focus on the children is “undaunted,” and she has been able to endure slander and innuendo because she is “extremely strong.”
The superintendent legislation sped through the Legislature in 12 days despite concerns from some lawmakers about its constitutionality and the specter of court challenge ahead.
Supporters of the change say the state Constitution provides that the Legislature determines the duties and powers of the superintendent.
Two years into her term, Hill has alienated and frustrated state lawmakers and others who took issue with how she ran a department with a $1.9 billion two-year budget and 150 employees.
Her tenure so far has included accusations that she improperly redirected state money to programs not authorized by the Legislature and hindered legislative reform efforts to better prepare Wyoming students for college and careers. Hill has defended her administration of the agency and denied obstructing education reform laws.
Meanwhile, Mead said the Legislature’s appropriations committee is working on a budget for the new permanent director and Hill’s new office, which will be located separate from the Department of Education.
Hill will have her own team and will continue to be a member of state boards and commissions.
The governor said he doesn’t intend to make any changes in the department and wants stability for the employees.
Rose said his first priority will be to find a permanent director.
Members of the state Board of Education will select three candidates, from which the governor will name a permanent director by Dec. 1. The person selected must be confirmed by the Wyoming Senate.
Rose said he will recommend a national search for the permanent director but will not apply for it himself. He said his experience has been in higher education.
Rose said he will be able to juggle the two jobs with the help of his deputy on the commission, Matt Petry.
His salary as interim director will be the same as it has been as community college commission director.
Rose said he and the governor will meet Monday with State Board of Education trustees to discuss the logistics of the transition.
The last time major changes were made to a statewide elected office was in the early 1990s when the state auditor’s duties were reorganized.
Star-Tribune capital bureau reporter Joan Barron contributed to this story.