The Tea Party head of Wyoming's education system may be stripped of nearly all her authority and end up relegated to a number of minor roles if pending legislation continues to gain steam.
A bill, which has gained bipartisan support from top legislative leaders and has passed two preliminary votes, would strip state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R) of her control over the state Department of Education and turn the agency over to a director appointed by the governor. The elected superintendent's job would remain in existence, but would be effectively neutered of any real power under the plan. Proponents say the bill is needed to end a "crisis" caused by Hill's refusal to implement legislation.
"This current situation has reached a crisis level," state House Minority Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) told The Huffington Post. "Several of my colleagues have made the point that 91 people have passed laws and one elected official should not stop laws."
Throne said the breaking point was reached when Hill chose not to follow through on education reform legislation over the last two years, including a change to the state's 11th grade testing procedure, moving from a state-run test to the nationally based ACT. Throne said that a legislative committee on education appointed two liaisons in order to ensure that the superintendent was enforcing state laws.
Late last year, the liaisons issued a scathing report of Hill's performance, saying that the state Education Department under her leadership was not performing its duties and could miss deadlines to implement new federal education laws and potentially lose out on federal money.
Hill criticized the liaison report as a means to set the stage to strip her of control of the department. Hill's spokesman did not return a call for comment on this story. She opposes the pending legislation.
"This appears to be a power grab, which takes power away from the people of Wyoming and gives it to the governor," Hill said in a statement released by her office this week. "If a change needs to be made, it should be made by the people of Wyoming in the form of an amendment to the Wyoming State Constitution."
House Speaker Thomas Lubnau (R-Gillette) told the Star-Tribune on Thursday that several education department staffers told him that Hill announced at a staff meeting that she would not implement new state laws, which Lubnau said Hill denied to him. Lubnau said staffers had told him the agency operates under an "atmosphere of secrecy and intimidation."
The superintendent is an elected office with a four-year term, and was created by the state constitution. Hill, a former junior high school principal, was elected in 2010 mainly on the basis of her strong support within the Tea Party. The bill before the legislature would have a permanent impact on the superintendent's job beyond Hill's term in office.
Under the plan, the superintendent would retain seats on several boards, including the Board of Education and the University of Wyoming board. The superintendent would also be required to write an annual report on public education in Wyoming, administer the teacher of the year award program, establish state policies and review local policies on seclusion and restraint of students, develop model protocols for concussion and head injury prevention in school athletic programs, and develop programs for the disposal and storage of toxic chemicals in schools. The superintendent would also have the authority to develop regulations for "general supervision" of the schools, but could not do anything that would infringe on the duties of the Board or Department of Education. The superintendent's role relative to concussion policies would be advisory in nature, as local school districts could adopt their own head injury prevention programs.
Throne told HuffPost that the discussion about the role of the superintendent did not start under Hill, and that concerns about the scope of the office have been expressed under past superintendents. This echoes comments that House Education Committee Chairman Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) told The Star-Tribune earlier this week.
The legislation has passed preliminary votes in both the state House and Senate, with final votes expected in the coming weeks. Gov. Matt Mead (R) has not signaled whether he will sign the bill, but defended it this week.
"The important piece that gets lost in the hoopla is, if you look at the history of education in Wyoming, the superintendent has not had total control over education," Throne said. "The original department was under the Board of Education, then we went to superintendent control."