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January 24, 2013 1:59 pm

Guest Column: What is at the heart of SF 104?

Written by Cindy Hill

(The following are responses of Cindy Hill, Superintendent of Public Instruction, to two questions posed by the Casper Star Tribune: (1) why is the local control vs. centralization debate at the center of SF104? –and (2) what is at the heart of SF104?)

Local Control vs. Centralization

The Wyoming Supreme Court’s equity mandate relating to school funding has led to a debate over how much control over education remains with local school boards, and how much control can and should be exercised at the state level. The belief among some legislators is that the Legislature must control all aspects of education, including what goes on locally. Those at the local levels have felt an incremental loss of local control over the past couple of decades. Centralizing the power over the Wyoming Department of Education in the hands of the Governor (and the Legislature), represents the most ambitious step towards centralizing and concentrating power.

My contention is that in the shift to federal funds and programs, and from the Wyoming Supreme Court’s equity mandate, both having the effect of being centralized and concentrations of power, the State not the teachers lost focus on the true mission of schools: Instruction. I have dedicated a great deal of time since being in office to bring out best practices and work with teachers and administrators at the local level to focus on instruction. The response from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive and results continue to reflect our student’s focused work. As a state, we know that the purpose of education is to educate the child, not only to build new buildings, or come up with the best test, or lead in administrator salaries. A relentless focus on instruction is what yields results. A focus on instruction puts everyone on the same page and might well remove the local control vs. centralization debate. That is, if we can all agree to focus on having the finest instruction, instilling that culture in each and every school in the state, and protecting instruction time, while setting a measurable goal, then we will certainly get the results we want.

My focus on the work done locally, then, comes from the practical recognition that this is where the work gets done with students. Students are not taught from Washington, D.C. or Cheyenne. They are taught at the local level. We must build on our relationships with teachers and parents, because that is where the work gets done. Because I am accountable to all of the people of Wyoming, I worry about how every community is doing and feel a connection to every school in the state and that is what the people expect of me as the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.

When it comes to education, elections are important in Wyoming. Local school boards are elected because Wyoming people want to have an influence on who holds those positions and who is making the decisions relating to their children. Legislators are elected for the same reason. The Superintendent of Public Instruction was established as a state-wide elected office for precisely for the same reason: because Wyoming people want to have the ability to choose who is making decisions relating to their children. In Wyoming, we have a distrust for appointed bureaucrats. The framers of the Wyoming Constitution felt that it was no less important to elect a Superintendent of Public Instruction that it was to elect members of the Legislature (and, for the same reasons, we elect a Governor, an Auditor, Treasurer, and Secretary of State) and to have elected school boards. The vote over matters relating to education represents direct influence over the decisions that are made relating to children. An elected official should travel the state and listen to the people. Indeed, this was one of the reasons that I was elected: I listen to the people and I am the advocate for those at the local level. The electoral process allows direct contact with the official who will have influence on education, allows the public the opportunity discuss important issues and builds in a process where issues get discussed (i.e., the election), and with that personal contact, builds in responsiveness to the people after the election. Americans believe in elections because we do not want a faceless bureaucracy making decisions for us. Wyoming people are even more strongly of this view. The contract with the people of Wyoming is the Wyoming Constitution. That document says that there will be an elected Superintendent that has broad powers over education in Wyoming and that document is the document by which the Legislature derives its powers—from the consent of the people as expressed in the Constitution.

That occasional friction would occur between a Superintendent and members of the Legislature is natural, productive, and was part of the plan to create checks and balances. Important decisions should be tested through ideas that may, from time to time, clash. Last year, Representative Kermit Brown said on public radio that we should not have a Superintendent with an agenda different than the agenda of the Legislature. This thinking is directly contrary to the design of the Wyoming Constitution and seeks to suppress a full exploration of ideas. The Wyoming Constitution valued those with differing ideas and those who would question the status quo. I have done that, in the most polite ways. Education in Wyoming has not been achieving the desired results in all areas of our state for many years. The power structure in the Legislature over education issues has built an insular system that discourages outside voices. For example, on Page 11 of my 2013 Address to the Legislature, I pointed out all the testing changes that have occurred since 2010. I pointed out the impact of those testing changes on those in the school districts and stated that these changes are not helpful. What we need, I said, is to keep the measure constant and then let the school districts set out to meet established goals. On the floor of the Senate, Senator Phil Nicholas called this observation, stated in the most neutral of terms, “a statement of belligerence.” If we cannot have our voices heard, then we do not have a democracy.

So What Is Really Going On?

Prior to my swearing in, many questionable practices in the Wyoming Department of Education were taking place. Below are several examples of such situations.

For years, power over education decisions has been concentrated in the hands of a few legislators. Senator Coe, as Senate Education Chair, was one of them. There was a Superintendent of Public Instruction, but much power was concentrated in the hands of Mary Kay Hill, who worked closely with both the Legislature and the State Board of Education. This set of relationships were in place for years and ensured that Legislature had control over the Department of Education, and thus, had control over the entire apparatus of education at the state level. Senator Coe wanted Senator Massie to win the election for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Mike Massie, who served with Senator Coe on the Senate Education Committee, was part of the existing power structure over education in the Legislature. The voters disagreed that the existing power structure had been working and elected a person who was not part of that power structure. Senator Coe had been Senate Education Chair for over 15 years, and during this period, education did not progress as he has complained.

When I was elected, this set of relationships was threatened. Suddenly, the existing power structure had someone new to deal with. My efforts were criticized by the existing power structure. In the first days of my of office, Mary Kay Hill warned “Cindy Hill has no idea about all the grenades that are being rolled under her chair.” I asked her who was rolling hand grenades under my chair. She refused to answer. I told her that if she had made a comment like that in a school, as a student, she could be expelled. She became very angry. Within days, she resigned and was immediately hired by the Governor. I told the Governor at the time that this could cause problems.

Admittedly, as many have described, I did not “kiss the ring” of the power players in the Legislature. Senator Phil Nicholas was quite upset that I was moving the Laramie office to Cheyenne. He has waged a vendetta campaign ever since. That move occurred because the Laramie office had been off on its own, making decisions autonomously, and refused to collaborate with the rest of the Department and respond to me as requested. Senator Nicholas became abusive, and tried very hard to intimidate me. He said that they (the Legislators) make all the decisions, and that all my duties are set by them. I honored all statutes. I had the authority, constitutionally, to administer my office. I was not moved by his abusive behavior, and went ahead and moved the Laramie office back to Cheyenne.

I have been ending contracts that were not needed, and have been cleaning up practices that were questionable. For example, in the past, one contractor (AdvancedEd) had been sending Department of Education employees to Europe and Asia to visit schools. They would visit schools for a hand full of days, and then stay in places like Germany, Belgium, Japan, Abu Dhabi, and other places for a couple weeks. Not only were the trips paid for by the contractor, but the Department employees who were the recipients of the largess of the contractor were not taking vacation time—i.e., they were being paid by the Department to be on vacation. These trips, in part, appeared to be boondoggles paid for by a contractor. I felt that the practice appeared improper, and I stopped it. This was not popular among some Department employees, but this example serves to show practices that were in place under the former administration.

As another example, between the election and my swearing in, the Advanced Ed contract nearly doubled without a commensurate increase in deliverables. After I was elected, I re- negotiated the contract down to previous levels without diminishing services. I have done all of this without fan-far, but these changes were not received well.

It is no coincidence that Michael Flicek and Ruth Sommers are the Legislative liaisons that have written reports critical of the Department. Both Flicek, Somers, and Board of Education consultant Page Fenton-Hughes, all had high priced, sole-source contracts with the Department that I have discontinued. Where services are still needed, I put those contracts out for bid to find the most qualified, responsive, and responsible bidder. Our review of agency contracts has continued and I am committed to making sure that the questionable practices that had gone on before do not continue.

The past two years has been challenging in dealing with the existing power structure. Within the first few weeks of my coming into office, Senator Coe refused to share pending legislation with me. He literally would not speak to me, would not take my calls, and refused to meet with me. By his actions, he has decided it would be better for me to be out. From the start of my administration, he was saying that he wanted a constitutional amendment to make the Superintendent an appointed position. We have had to go through allegations of misuse of money and an audit that we have passed with flying colors and showed no misuse of money, have been told that we cannot speak at meetings, and have had to handle baseless accusation after baseless accusation which we have proved to be falsehoods time after time. For example, where the legislative liaisons said that we were late with work, video taped testimony of one of the liaisons conceded that we had not missed deadlines. We have provided audio taped testimony of the auditor indicating that no monies were misused and nothing illegal transpired. There has been a concerted effort to return all the power to the power structure that was in place prior to my election with the various tactics described, with SF104 being the most current example.

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