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Area legislators: Uncertainty dominates following superintendent ruling

A week after the Wyoming Supreme Court declared the state’s superintendent of public instruction law unconstitutional, local legislators and residents continue to wonder what will happen in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think anyone knows what’s next until the decision is reviewed and we go through the legal process,” said state Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell.

On Thursday, the state asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to reconsider its 3-2 decision, a move that could delay Superintendent Cindy Hill’s return as head of the state Department of Education, according to The Associated Press.

State Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said the court’s Jan. 28 ruling has caused a real mess — but he added the court could say the Wyoming Legislature caused the mess.

Along with a majority of the state House and Senate, most local legislators voted last year to pass Senate File 104, a law that stripped the superintendent of public instruction of many powers and duties.

Peterson didn’t vote for the final version of the law, because he felt it went too far. He said he wasn’t satisfied with the structure of the superintendent’s office before SF 104, and he still has problems with it.

“We can do better with the structure of the department,” Peterson said.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, co-chairman of the Joint Education Committee, said he was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling and called it one of the worst decisions he’s seen from the court since he’s followed its proceedings.

Coe said the judgment doesn’t provide direction or give a summary of which powers the Legislature couldn’t take away from the superintendent and which it was required to keep. He also said the two justices who dissented in the ruling “were fiery and disappointed with the decision of the three.”

Coe called Senate File 104 “absolutely the right thing to do” and said he would do it again in a heartbeat. He said if you look at the superintendent’s lack of following state law, “it was the right thing to do at the time.”

Hill has denied any wrongdoing and rejects legislators’ contentions that she didn’t follow statutes.

Coe noted the strong support the measure received in the Wyoming House and Senate last year.

State Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, said he also believes passing the law was the “right thing to do.” The Legislature created the Department of Education, and Krone said he felt the Legislature could modify or amend the department.

While he disagrees with the court’s ruling, “it’s the law, and we’re going to follow the law,” Krone said.

Krone noted that the Supreme Court could agree to rehear the case — as Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael has requested — though he said his understanding is that such rehearings “are very, very rarely granted.”

Coe said he supports the attorney general’s effort, but said the court doesn’t historically rehear cases.

“I don’t have a lot of optimism that they will rehear it,” he said.

State Rep. Dave Blevins, R-Powell, said he was OK with the ruling, adding, “we want to follow the constitution.” But he noted the court was only considering the constitutionality of Senate File 104, not Hill’s actions.

“The other part of the issue is misappropriation of money, and that is still being considered” by a special legislative committee, Blevins said. “That issue is still alive, and I think we need to follow it to the end.”

The investigation is unprecedented in Wyoming and could lead to impeachment proceedings against Hill, according to The Associated Press.

The local legislators are unsure whether the superintendent law will become a priority of the Legislature’s upcoming budget session beginning Monday.

“It might come up, but we need to focus on the budget,” Peterson said.

Coe said he has been contacted by legislators about the possibility of new legislation to address the education issues, but he hasn’t seen anything, and he doesn’t know whether the issues will come before the Legislature this session.

Krone said he — and other lawmakers he’s spoken with — aren’t sure whether the Legislature will have time to effectively handle the state’s biannual budget, issues like the federal Affordable Care Act and the Department of Education situation within a 20-day session.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to do a special session to just deal with this, but we’ll see,” Krone said.

Krone described the education department changes as massive, “and not just philosophically, but also logistically.”

Peterson said he has seen structural problems with the superintendent’s office for years.

“In this case, there needs to be a structural change, and we need to get past the bickering between the Legislature and superintendent,” Peterson said.

Blevins and Peterson said Senate File 104 was about changing the structure of the education department, not about Cindy Hill.

Peterson said he supported Hill when she campaigned in 2010, and he had high hopes for the department moving forward. Instead, “we’ve been in flux for three years,” he said.

Peterson noted past friction between former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and former Superintendent Trent Blankenship.

“We’ve just had problems, not just with Cindy, but with past superintendents as well,” he said. “It’s a tough position.”

The superintendent had to answer to federal and state regulations, plus oversee a very large department and budget, he said.

Blevins said continuity is crucial in the superintendent position. He said he witnessed that as the state department suffered from ups and downs during his eight years on the Powell school board.

“Education is very complicated, and based on data and research. We need continuity, and we don’t have it,” he said.

The ongoing turmoil in the Department of Education is “very frustrating,” Northrup said.

Northrup said he’s concerned about the possible ramifications for school districts and employees in the department.

Northrup served for 12 years on the Powell school board, and he’s worried about potential changes to state education standards. Wyoming recently adopted new Common Core standards for math and language arts.

The amount of time and effort that goes into adopting new standards can wear down teachers and administrators, he said. “And here we are, maybe changing gears again,” Northrup said.

Blevins said he is confident in the leadership of Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell to follow the issues and keep track of possible impacts for Powell schools.

“He’s going to move the school district forward, regardless of the turmoil at the top,” Blevins said.

Though the future remains uncertain for the Department of Education, “hopefully the dust will settle and we can move on and get something that’s best for Wyoming students,” Peterson said.

— CJ Baker contributed reporting to this article.

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