CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead signed into law the most drastic changes to the duties and powers of a statewide elected official in decades, and Superintendent Cindy Hill answered with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the changes made to her office.
The new law signed Tuesday replaces the superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education with a director appointed by the governor.
As directed by the law, Mead appointed Jim Rose, who is 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.
The law culminates a testy battle between the Legislature and Hill over her administration of the Education Department.
“I don’t think anybody would view this as a celebration,” Mead said, noting he went through much soul searching before deciding to sign the legislation. “I think we would view it as a duty that we must go forward on for the kids of Wyoming.”
The issue now moves to the courts. Hill filed a lawsuit in Laramie County District Court on Tuesday, and Judge Thomas Campbell was assigned to the case. 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,” Hill, who was elected in 2010 to a four-year term, said.
Hill attended Mead’s signing ceremony in the governor’s office and accompanied her attorney in serving the lawsuit to the governor after he had finished.
Representatives of Wyoming school boards and school administrators said they are ready to work with new arrangement to deliver public education to some 90,000 K-12 students across the state.
“We’ll work with everybody in any way we can,” Wyoming School Boards Association executive director Mark Higdon said.
Higdon and Dave Barker, president of the Wyoming Association of School Administrators, said the important thing now is to get education reform efforts the Legislature has been pushing in the last several years on the right track.
“Whether it’s a superintendent or a director, that’s going to be a huge focus for districts,” Barker said.
Kathy Vetter, president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the organization that advocates for public school teachers in the state is waiting to see how the new law is implemented.
“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.
The last time major changes were made to a statewide elected office was in the early 1990s when the state auditor’s duties were reorganized.
The superintendent legislation sped through the Legislature in 12 days despite concerns from some lawmakers about its constitutionality and the specter of court challenge ahead.
However, supporters of the change say the state constitution provides that the Legislature determines the duties and powers of the superintendent.
Mead said his attorney general found that the law was constitutional, but Hill said the law is a case of the legislative branch overstepping its bounds and diminished the vote of those 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.
Elected in 2010, Hill is in her third year as head of the Wyoming 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.
Her tenure so far 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.
But Mead and others who supported the law said structural problems with administration of the Education Department have been going on before Hill took office.
“It’s come to full light over the last couple of years, but that’s not the first time,” Mead said.
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.
The law specifies that office space separate from the Education Department offices will be obtained for Hill and any staff that she needs.
Mead tried to reassure Education Department employees that his intention isn’t to immediately make a lot of personnel changes.
“What I’m trying to do is, let’s see where we are, let’s everybody take a deep breath, recognize that this has been difficult, and there are challenges ahead and Dr. Rose is going to help us work through them,” he said.