The purpose of a special session isn’t to go after Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, Coe said. Rather, it’s to address a recent Supreme Court decision overturning a 2013 law that removed the superintendent as head of the Department of Education and replaced her with a governor-appointed director.
“We have to unravel the statutes — 37 different statutes we have to go into and change the laws back, so that’s why we would go into a special session,” Coe said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with trying to put Cindy Hill on the hot seat again, although I will say that the House investigation is still ongoing.”
A special legislative committee is investigating Hill’s actions as superintendent and allegations that she misappropriated money. That investigation could lead to impeachment proceedings against Hill, but she has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
Legislators are waiting on that committee’s findings, a federal audit and the district court to issue a final order following the Supreme Court ruling.
Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, said there are a lot of factors involved, and everyone is being cautious on how to handle the situation. Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, said there’s no more clarity about the administration of the state’s education department than when the budget session began last month.
“The only thing that’s become clear is that the Supreme Court’s decision is final,” said Krone on Friday.
With the court’s 3-2 ruling on Feb. 28 that denied a rehearing, “Obviously, (Senate File) 104’s unconstitutional,” Krone said. “There’s no doubt about it (now).”
Meanwhile, Hill said the Supreme Court decision is enough to allow her to return to the department and she briefly returned to it Monday morning (see related story on this page). She also said Gov. Matt Mead and his attorneys were plotting further legal delays, according to The Associated Press.
“These delay tactics fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s ruling,” she said. “We’re on uncharted ground, and I hope that the governor will hear my words and be responsive.”
Mead said he didn’t understand Hill’s accusation.
“She brought the lawsuit, and we haven’t gotten an order,” he said. “I don’t know how much plotting that is. We’re waiting for the court’s order.”
In a filing last week, state Attorney General Peter Michael asked the district court for a conference with the judge and both sides to “identify an expeditious path forward for this case.”
In a letter to Director of the Education Department Richard Crandall dated Friday, Michael wrote that until the district court acts upon the Supreme Court’s decision, the law enacted last year remains in effect.
“Consequently, the management of the Department of Education remains under the control of the director, as provided in that law,” Michael wrote.
Legislators were surprised that Hill planned to return to the department Monday, before the district court has issued its order.
“I think we were all shocked by it. I can’t believe she’s going to try to do that,” Coe said on Friday. “Because clearly, she can’t until the district court acts.”
On Wednesday, the legislative Management Council tasked the 14-member Joint Education Interim Committee to look at solutions following the Supreme Court ruling.
That decision came after proposed legislation to address the superintendent ruling failed in the budget session.
“We’re down here to pass a biennium budget. That was our focus,” Coe said in Cheyenne on Friday.
A tentative April 30 deadline was set for the committee to draft bills and possibly recommend a special session.
“I believe a special session is forthcoming, but the question is the timing of it — do we do it immediately or wait until after the primary,” Northrup said.
Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said he thinks the session will be in the summer, before the primary election, to clarify the situation for candidates seeking the superintendent position.
“They need to know what they’re running for and what the duties and responsibilities are,” he said.
Coe said he thinks a special session will take a few days. He said the Legislature didn’t use all of its allotted days last year and this year.
“We have four days out there that money is already appropriated for, so we wouldn’t have to spend additional money for a special session,” Coe said.
In coming weeks, Northrup said the Joint Education Committee will look at whether to enact minimum requirements to satisfy the court’s ruling, provide full return of the superintendent or meet somewhere in the middle of those options.
Due to a number of contracts and other legal matters, it’s not as simple as just changing the wording from “director” to “superintendent,” Northrup said.
He said legislators will make sure they’re satisfying the court’s ruling. It’s possible the director of education and superintendent will coexist in the department and oversee different responsibilities, Northrup said.
“The director has done a good job of getting things on track,” Peterson said.
Krone has gotten the impression that the education committee will look at keeping Crandall on board as education director while restoring Hill’s powers in a kind of meshing of the two positions.
“There’s definitely no road map right now,” Krone said.
Eventually, legislators also may deal with the investigative committee’s findings.
“What I’m concerned about as a taxpayer is the accusation of the misappropriation of funds,” said Rep. Dave Blevins, R-Powell. “It won’t be resolved until we have the federal audit ... if laws have been broken, then we’ll deal with that.”
The investigation was suspended during last month’s budget session.
Peterson said it will take time and said the legislative committee has to go through “a stack of documents that could choke a horse.”
Peterson is the only local legislator who didn’t vote for the final version of Senate File 104 last year. He believed it went too far in taking powers away from the superintendent. However, he said he still thinks there needs to be a change in the structure of the department.
“We need to make changes so everyone is on the same wagon and going in the same direction,” Peterson said.
Northrup said he believes what’s going on in the Department of Education isn’t the top concern for school superintendents in the Big Horn Basin, who are making sure education is moving forward for local students.
(CJ Baker and The Associated Press contributed to this story.)