In a move that pits Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill against the rest of state government, Gov. Matt Mead has signed legislation that effectively removes Hill from overseeing the state's public schools, and transfers her duties to a new director that Mead appointed Jan. 29.
In response, Hill showed up at the press conference Mead had called, also on Jan. 29, to discuss the bill he signed, Senate File 104, and then she and her attorney served him with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of his decision, which essentially reduces Hill's position to a ceremonial one, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
For some time, Hill has been under fire from state lawmakers who have been sharply critical of how Hill has managed the development of the state's new accountability system. At the end of last year, there was a long-running spat between Hill and legislators about an independent audit purporting to show numerous problems with how Hill was implementing the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act, signed into law last year by Mead, a Republican. Legislators complained that Hill missed two deadlines to respond to the report, but she eventually did, with a defense that ran several hundred pages. In it, Hill denied allegations, for example, that her department did not understand the "growth model" used in the state's new accountability system. That seems like a pretty serious charge to levy against the state's K-12 boss.
Hill, a Republican elected in 2010, also tangled with lawmakers on a select committee last month in a discussion of the allegations against her. One member of that committee, GOP Sen. Hank Coe, accused Hill of campaigning for his write-in opponent in the November election, which perhaps left some bad blood. Coe is also chairman of the Senate education committee, and authored the bill Mead signed.
The state's accountability system has charted an uncertain course in other ways. In August, the state decided to nix an No Child Left Behind Act accountability test for high school juniors, despite being told by the U.S. Department of Education that it should keep the exam. (Wyoming does not have an NCLB waiver, and it has not requested one.) Apparently, putting up a united front against the feds has not prevented internecine GOP bickering in the state over K-12 policy that has now evolved (or devolved) into a messy legal snarl. The suit has been taken up by Laramie County District Court.
Back to the bill. You can see in Senate File 104 all the places where "state superintendent" is crossed out (to modify the existing statute) and replaced with "director of the department of education." The director, Jim Rose, who has led the Wyoming Community College Commission, will have power over the entire education department, although the Star-Tribune reported that Hill would continue to serve on state boards and commissions.
"This was a very tough decision for me," Mead said in a press conference after the bill signing. "I don't think anybody would view this as a celebration. I think they would view this as a duty that we must move forward on for the kids in Wyoming."
Hill fired back by saying the legislative branch of Wyoming government has run amuck, and that the bill Mead signed is not constitutional, even though the governor said state Attorney General Gregory Phillips has told him it is.
"The leadership in the Senate and the House, by pushing through this measure with great haste, limiting public input, and engaging in other questionable tactics, have let us down," Hill said in a statement.
In practical terms, one could argue that Hill has been fired, although she will technically remain at her post. Needless to say, lots of K-12 eyes will be watching to see if Hill, who was elected to a four-year term, will survive.