Controversial Wyoming schools chief bill passes Legislature, heads to governor's desk

Controversial Wyoming schools chief bill passes Legislature, heads to governor's desk

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Cindy Hill

Cindy Hill

CHEYENNE -- A bill stripping the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction of most administrative duties passed the state Legislature on Friday despite concerns from some lawmakers about its constitutionality and the specter of a court challenge ahead.

Senate File 104 became the first bill to pass the Legislature, moving through the legislative process in an unusually quick 12 days -- with the backing of leaders in both the state House and Senate from both parties. Opponents complained the measure was being fast-tracked, but supporters noted no legislative rules were broken or suspended.

On Friday, the bill, which was first proposed Jan. 9, passed the House on a 39-20 vote after a 70-minute debate, and the Senate followed with a 21-9 vote to accept the House version. The measure now goes to Gov. Matt Mead, who has not explicitly endorsed or rejected the bill.

In a statement issued by his office, Mead remained noncommittal, saying only that he will thoroughly review the legislation and give it thoughtful deliberation.

Mead has until the end of the day Tuesday to sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature.

Many requirements in the bill would become effective immediately if it becomes law.

For example, Superintendent Cindy Hill would be removed immediately as head of the Department of Education and an interim director appointed by the governor would assume supervision of the agency.

The process of selecting a permanent director requires the Wyoming State Board of Education to provide three names to the governor. The governor has until Dec. 1 to appoint one of the candidates. The appointment is subject to state Senate confirmation.

The candidate for the permanent job must have a master's degree in business, public or educational administration and 10 years' management experience in business, government or education.

The bill requires the governor to set the salary for the director. Mead said earlier that the director should be well paid.

Meanwhile, Hill will continue to draw her $92,000 salary set by state statute.

She will continue to serve on state boards and commissions along with the other four elected state officials, including Mead.

The bill restricts her duties as state schools chief but allows her to continue to provide professional development of certified teachers and make an annual report to the Legislature on the status of Wyoming public education, among other things.

It also moves her office from the Department of Education to a separate location.

The department and the superintendent's office are currently located in the Herschler Building in the state Capitol complex.

Hill said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that she expected Mead to sign the bill into law or let it become law based on a conversation she said she had with him a year ago about whether the Education Department should be run by an appointed director.

"It's a sad day for Wyoming ... and Wyoming's constitution, and we the people are not going to stand for this," Hill said.

However, she was coy when asked if she planned to challenge the law in court.

"There'll be steps ahead," she said, declining to elaborate.

Reflecting the distrust lawmakers have for Hill, the bill includes a provision that the governor's office review all Education Department personnel decisions and job changes during the 60 days leading to the law's enactment.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the amendment addresses Education Department employees who fear for their jobs while Hill remains in office.

Elected in 2010, Hill is in her third year as head of the Wyoming education system. However, two years into her term she had 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.

Supporters of the bill claimed Hill deliberately thwarted the Legislature's attempts at educational accountability reform because of her personal philosophy and opposition to centralized control of K-12 public schools.

Hill consistently maintained she had tried to comply with the Legislature's mandates.

The structure itself created tensions between the various entities involved and should have been changed years ago, the proponents argued.

But the Legislature's difficulties with Hill provided the catalyst that provoked the drastic change in the system.

Opponents of the bill, including Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, maintain the proposal takes so many powers away from Hill that it may violate the constitutional requirement that the superintendent have general supervision over the state's public schools.

The House on Friday rejected attempts to delay action until Monday and to delay the effective date of the bill until the end of Hill's elected term in January 2015.

House Minority Leader Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, an attorney who has three sons in Cheyenne K-12 schools, said neither the state nor the kids can wait two years.

"We cannot continue to have obstruction," said Throne, who has served on education committees during her six years in the House.

House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said he hasn't heard anyone say that this superintendent or many of her predecessors have followed procedures prescribed by law.

"It's our job to fix that. We have a broken system," Lubnau said. "I'm asking you to do a hard thing, I'm asking you to stand up to a skilled and powerful politician."

He added that he was also asking the lawmakers to stand up against threats to their political careers and threats of a lawsuit.

"When our system allows our elected officials to overstep their bounds, it is our duty to reign them in," he said.

Gingery said Hill was really trying to do the right thing for the students and ran against some very powerful people.

In its short run through the Legislature, the bill quickly became one of the most contested proposals, prompting multiple hours of impassioned floor debate in front of packed Senate and House galleries, hours of committee testimony and hundreds of phone calls and emails to lawmakers. Some 400 phone calls were made to a legislative hotline, according to Legislative Service Office records.

Star-Tribune capital bureau reporter Joan Barron contributed to this story.

Contact capital bureau reporter Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

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