Wyoming Senate panel advances schools' chief bill

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed a proposed bill to drastically reduce the administrative role of Wyoming's top state public schools official, even though Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill says the proposal would make her office a ceremonial position.

Senate File 104, which was approved by the committee without debate on a 5-0 vote Friday, was expected to head next to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

A proposal would remove the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education. It would create a new director of the agency who would be appointed by the governor.

Hill and other opponents say the bill diminishes one of the five statewide elected offices, while supporters say it would help take the political dysfunction out of state education.

SF104 transfers all Education Department divisions, agencies, programs, positions, personnel, property, budgets and functions to the new director. The law would take effect when passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Matt Mead.

Mead would be required to "immediately" appoint an interim director to oversee transfer of the department's administrative duties and then appoint a director by Dec. 1.

Under the proposal, the superintendent's main education duties would include preparing an annual report for the Legislature on the general status of public schools and administering the teacher of the year award. The superintendent would remain on various boards and commissions, including the State Board of Education and the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

The bill comes in the wake of criticism by lawmakers and others of Hill's administration of the Education Department. In particular, her department has been accused of setting back and hindering the state's ambitious public education efforts by failing to complete tasks specified in state law.

Hill, a Republican elected about two years ago, said that while the superintendent's position would remain a statewide elected office under the bill, the proposal would leave the office as a ceremonial position with little value.

"If people are voting for a state superintendent of public instruction it is because they honestly believe the person can and will accomplish the job," she said. "If you strip away the power to get the work done, you have stripped away the voice of the people."

She said the bill would leave the Education Department up to a bureaucrat who is not as responsive to the voters or as dedicated to the task of educating children.

"Bureaucrats are risk avoiders, seeking rather to protect his or her job," she said.

She said any changes to the job should be made by amending the Wyoming Constitution.

The superintendent of public instruction is currently one of five statewide elected officials. The others are the governor, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer. The Wyoming Constitution entrusts the superintendent with "general supervision of the public schools" but specifies that the job's duties and powers must be prescribed by law, which the Legislature determines.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said amending the constitution was unnecessary and would take too long, delaying education reform even longer.

Coe, one of the bill's sponsors, said the proposal doesn't change any of the constitutional duties of superintendent.

"I don't happen to agree with the perception that we're going against the vote of the people," he said. "We're talking about the huge, heavy lift for the Department of Education as it relates to education accountability. Clearly, the cooperation and the performance out of the department has not been there."

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