The fact that a legislative liaison was barred from a Wyoming Department of Education staff meeting is indicative of larger, systemic problems that have hamstrung accountability efforts and resulted in a deep lack of trust by lawmakers that educational funds are being properly spent.
The lack of progress the department is making in fulfilling the requirements of the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act is disturbing, and can't be allowed to continue.
Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, co-chairman of the Select Committee on Educational Accountability, said the panel spent most of last Thursday's meeting in Torrington just "rehashing what we did last year."
The purpose of the new law was to improve accountability measures so Wyoming -- which has seen its spending on public education increase dramatically in recent years -- can begin to see higher test scores that better reflect the state's investment.
Instead, the department continues to resist efforts by lawmakers of both parties to see that the money appropriated is used for the purposes it was intended.
One of the liaisons in the nonpartisan Legislative Service Office, Mike Flicek, was barred from attending a July 16 meeting of the DOE's Technical Advisory Committee.
The panel includes experts on educational assessments who are required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to make sure states are fulfilling requirements concerning contracts.
That's precisely the type of meeting lawmakers want their liaison to attend, so they can be aware of what's happening. But Flicek said he was told that the meeting was for department staff members only, even though it had several items on the agenda related to the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill tried to defend the department's decision by noting that at previous meetings, Flicek had become a participant instead of just an observer. She seemed to take offense that he commented on contract negotiations. But it makes sense to have the legislative liaison attend, and if he sees a potential conflict or problem, to weigh in on the matter at that time.
Hill, though, said that the liaison can simply be briefed later about what transpired at the committee meeting. "We have work to do ... It's become very cumbersome," she said of the new process.
But Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, co-chairman of the Select Committee on Educational Accountability, was right when he said the liaisons need to attend "so we can monitor and document the progress."
"That's why they were created and that's why they were given the broad authority that they were given," Teeters added.
This signals a new low in an already troubled relationship. In April, DOE officials said the two liaisons, Flicek and Ruth Sommers, were free to attend any meetings and talk to staff members.
But in June, the liaisons were told by Hill to go through either Paul Williams or John Masters, the department's accountability lead, for all communication with the DOE.
Members of the select committee, meanwhile, were right to nix the department's plan to create an Accountability Study Group -- which wasn't required by the Legislature -- and $160,000 for a new DOE employee to help coordinate the State Board of Education's meetings and communication.
Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, noted the Legislature created the Professional Judgment Panel (PJP) as part of its education accountability efforts.
"The department independently has appointed a separate group to, in essence, make preliminary decisions for the PJP," Throne said. "It's very troubling to me because that's not a supporting role. That's usurping."
The system is now clearly broken. If the reasonable remedies to promote transparency and make the DOE more accountable to the state for its spending are met with continued resistance, the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead will have no choice but to push for even stronger measures next year.