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Governor's staff looks over Hill's shoulder

Jul 15, 2012 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- A directive from the Wyoming Legislature requires Gov. Matt Mead's staff to exercise close oversight of some spending at the state Department of Education, an unusual process that both sides say is time-consuming.

State lawmakers this spring required the Governor's Office to certify the department was following state law in its spending on accountability programs. The requirement came after Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill transferred more than $200,000 without legislative approval to create a teacher training program last year.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, drafted the amendment to require the department to seek spending approval from the Governor's Office. Nicholas, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he believes the oversight arrangement was unprecedented but necessary to preserve the Legislature's exclusive authority to approve and fund new programs.

"I sort of saw it as the role as a policeman to say, 'OK, here are the rules. You guys deal within the rules,'" Nicholas said Thursday.

The Legislature has been pushing to increase accountability in the state's educational system in recent years as a result of concern that high levels of spending generally haven't resulted in better student performance.

Records obtained by The Associated Press from both the governor's office and the education department also reflect that staffers have haggled in recent months over how to implement the review process. Hill has declined to sign statements requested by the governor's office certifying her department's spending on testing and assessment work.

"I was doing just what the law requires, exactly what they specifically required," Hill said Thursday of her decision not to sign the statements Mead's office wanted. "And in this particular situation, it did require that the governor certify. So I was doing just what the law was requiring."

Mead wrote to Hill in late June denying her request to pay the University of Wyoming more than $400,000 to set up an "end of course" exam to gauge high school student achievement. Mead cited concerns about the terms of the agreement between the education department and the university.

Mary Kay Hill, education policy adviser to Mead and no relation to Superintendent Hill, said this week that she believes the office will come to an agreement with the Education Department over the student exam issue.

In response to Superintendent Hill's refusal to sign the statements certifying her department's spending, Mary Kay Hill said Mead wrote that the Governor's Office regards all spending requests submitted by the Education Department to be submitted in the superintendent's name.

Mark Kay Hill, who previously worked for the Education Depart-ment, said reviewing the department's spending requests has been a time-consuming process.

"Because it's so new, it is not something that I can do easily," Mary Kay Hill said of the review work.

"It's requiring a different skill set from me than one I've used in my work previously. It takes a fair amount of time, but fortunately, I have experience with these is-sues and these programs."

Superintendent Hill said her administration is focused on student learning. She said she believes some legislators are committed to micromanaging her department.

"It's kind of a climate we're in right now. I don't have an opinion about it, I'm just recognizing it," Hill said. She said her staff is working harder than ever before to accommodate the extra time and work required by the spending review process.

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