Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill announced she will run for governor in 2014, according to the Associated Press. Cheyenne radio station KGAB reports Hill made the announcement during a talk show Thursday morning.
The announcement comes two days after Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill stripping Hill of most of her power as state superintendent. Mead has appointed an interim director to lead the Wyoming Department of Education.
Park County is a long way from the drama currently taking stage in Cheyenne.
“This should, at least in the short term, have no impact on what we do. And it’s certainly my goal to make sure it doesn’t have an impact on teaching and learning,” said Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell.
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.
Hill responded by filing a lawsuit in Laramie County District Court on Tuesday. Judge Thomas Campbell was assigned to the case but no court dates were immediately set.
“The legislation seeks to remove the voice of the people, and I will not allow the voices of the people to be extinguished,” said Hill, who was elected in 2010 to a four-year term.
The transfer of power has left Mitchell unsure of how the top levels of Wyoming’s education system will operate.
“I don’t know what Cindy is going to do. I don’t know what Jim Rose is going to do,” Mitchell said. “We know none of those details, (but) we’re not expecting any changes in the way we do business here in Powell.”
Powell school board chairman Rob McCray said he hopes this conclusion provides the framework needed to best educate Wyoming students.
“It’d be nice to have some stability and have some idea where we’re supposed to be headed so we can make sure our kids are successful,” he said.
Mitchell said the district will take a “wait and see” approach regarding the changes, the same approach taken by Wyoming Education Association president Kathy Vetter.
“Until we really see how it’s going to work, it’s hard to say what it’s going to really do to education in Wyoming,” Vetter said.
Representatives of Wyoming school boards and school administrators said they are ready to work with the new arrangement to deliver public education to some 90,000 K-12 students statewide.
“We’ll work with everybody in any way we can,” Wyoming School Boards Association Executive Director Mark Higdon said.
Mitchell said time will tell if the long-running feud between Hill and state officials, as well as the process of stripping her of her power, will have any type of detrimental affect on public education in Wyoming.
“I’m not making any assumptions or guesses at this time. We’re going to hunker down, and we’re going to teach kids,” Mitchell said.
Legal battle begins
While Powell schools move on with educating children, a legal battle will be waged between Hill’s camp, which argues SF 104 to be unconstitutional, and that of Mead, who has already said the state’s attorney general found the bill to be constitutional.
Hill argued the legislative branch overstepped its bounds and diminished the vote of the people of Wyoming who elected her two years ago.
“Under our constitution, I am your eyes, and your ears and your voice in public education,” Hill said.
Barring any court decision blocking the law, Hill, who says the change would leave her with nothing more than a ceremonial office, will serve out the remaining two years of her term performing other duties such as serving on various statewide boards and commissions. Her remaining duties range from overseeing the annual teacher of the year award to submitting an annual report to the Legislature on the general status of Wyoming’s public schools.
Hill is in her third year as head of the 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.
Local legislators show
support for SF 104
Sen. Ray Peterson, a Cowley Republican who represents Powell, was one of the 20 Senators who voted to pass Senate File 104 out of the 30-member Senate.
Peterson later voted against the version passed by the House and signed by the governor, which took away some additional powers from Hill. The changes made in the House included removing the superintendent as a voting member of the state board of education and requiring her to move to an office separate from the education department.
“They (the lawmakers in the House) stripped the position of some voting responsibilities and a few other items that I thought were unnecessary,” Peterson said in a Wednesday email.
In an interview last week, Peterson said he’d received many complaints that the measure is a personal attack on Hill. But Peterson said there’s been a struggle with the superintendent’s position for several decades.
“It’s not really a personal attack on the present superintendent of public instruction, but rather it’s an attack on the structure,” Peterson said.
He said the position has been more complex with increasing federal involvement in education.
“My concern is that we have some kind of assistant or director to assist the superintendent of public instruction with the office,” Peterson said. He sees the superintendent as more of a cheerleader for education.
Peterson also noted the high (more than 40 percent) turnover during Hill’s tenure and said he has a two-inch-thick binder of reports highly critical of the job she’s done over the last two years.
Her tenure has included accusations that she improperly redirected state money to programs not authorized by the Legislature and hindered legislative education 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.
“I like her as a person,” said Peterson, who endorsed Hill’s candidacy in 2010. “But it’s a miserable experience right now with 30 or 40 employees emailing legislators over here saying, ‘We’re glad you’re finally addressing this’ — (emails) out of her own department.”
As for the idea that an appointed director won’t be as accountable as an elected official, Peterson said he likes the fact that an appointed director could be fired at any time, unlike an elected official. He compared it to a local elected school board hiring a superintendent.
Between an elected superintendent of public instruction and an appointed director of education responsive to the governor, Peterson said he thinks the state would have “the best of both worlds” in representation. The comments came before the House further reduced the superintendent’s position.
Other local legislators showed unwavering support for Senate File 104. Voting for it were Reps. Dave Blevins, R-Powell, David Northrup, R-Powell, Sam Krone, R-Cody, Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, and Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody.
Mead has until Dec. 1 to appoint a permanent director. The state Board of Education will give him three names to choose from. His appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate.
Rose said he will not apply for the permanent director position.
McCray hopes education news in Wyoming can now shift back to the positive.
“No matter how you look at it, education kind of takes a hit when there’s (public disputes),” he said. “For the most part education in Wyoming is pretty good. It will be nice not to hear bad things relating to education in the news.”