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Bill to strip power from Hill's post amended

Jan 15, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Wyoming Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is working with fellow legislators to address accountability issues within the Wyoming Department of Education without taking power from the elected office of the Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction.

When it was introduced last week, Senate File 104 -- which passed the Senate on second reading Tuesday -- called for transferring the powers of the state superintendent to a state education director appointed by Gov. Matt Mead.

But Bebout said such a change should come from the voters.

"The state superintendent, by constitution, is an elected official, and I think the only one that should decide as to that constitutional amendment are the voters of the state," Bebout said. "I totally agree with that."

Bill amended

He said amendments on Tuesday better defined the role of the elected state superintendent, and he supported those. Another amendment allows the Wyoming Board of Education to appoint a director who would attend to various other tasks, and Bebout said he supported that move as well.

"There will be some more amendments," he said. "We might look at a state elected board."

Bebout said SF104 was developed to address some short-term problems within the WDE -- not to get rid of Superintendent Cindy Hill.

"There have been some irregularities in the budget process and the way that funds have been utilized," he said. "Some things in my opinion were not done properly. That's an issue out there in terms of the general operation. ... It's not about the state superintendent personally."

Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the original bill seemed to be tied to a personal issue between Hill and State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, who sponsored the legislation. But earlier this week he suspected there was more to the legislation than meets the eye, noting the bill's list of co-sponsors that includes Bebout.

"The co-sponsor list includes a bunch of folks who are not part of the fight, but who enjoy a pretty solid reputation down here," Case said. "Some folks around here are saying that there is more to come."

He said he was offended by some of the "good ol' boy" network in Cheyenne, which appears to be pushing the bill through the Legislature despite opposition from voters.

"I can tell the public doesn't like this," Case said Monday. "I have had a couple of e-mails in favor (of the bill), and most of those people in favor have intimate knowledge of schools. ... Those who are opposed are ordinary folks who feel like the Legislature is playing a fast one here. That tells me right there that we shouldn't do it."

On Tuesday afternoon Case said he still opposes the bill, which he says is progressing too quickly.

"(There) needs to be an interim study and a committee bill," he said.

House of Representatives

SF104 will come up once more for a vote in the Senate before heading to the House of Representatives. Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said he favors the bill because he does not believe the current process of electing the state superintendent has attracted people who are qualified to run the Wyoming Department of Education.

"I made it pretty clear when I was campaigning, and people would ask me about education, that I would like to see the state superintendent of public instruction be done away with as an elected position," Larsen said this week. "I had hoped that under my tenure it could come to fruition."

He said the state superintendent's $90,000 salary isn't enough to attract qualified people to the elected seat, because most school superintendents earn more than that. Checks and balances aren't in place to assure the state superintendent makes appropriate policy decisions, he said, and there is no way to get to know the person before he or she is elected. If SF104 passes through the Legislature, Larsen said Wyoming will have the opportunity to solicit people for the position from the state's education community.

He added that he had been frustrated with the state superintendent's position since before Hill was elected to the post in 2010.

"For more than 20 years ... (state) superintendents have not been as qualified as what the state deserved," Larsen said. "You have some people who are well intended that want to serve the state, but when they get there you find out they are not as qualified as we had thought."

He includes Hill in that description, but Larsen said the proposed legislation is not a vendetta against her.

In response to comments that SF104 changes the intent of the Wyoming Constitution, Larsen said the courts made it clear years ago that the Legislature is responsible for the state's education system. Larsen said that system is not producing the results that legislators hoped to see after investing money into K-12 education.

"It is my opinion that the disconnect has been at the state superintendent of public instruction office," Larsen said.

Miller opposed

Rep. Dave Miller, R-Riverton, said he doesn't support the bill for now, but he plans to review the situation before making a final decision.

"I want to see and hear what the issues are, (but) I have a problem with trying to overturn some of the elected duties of this office," Miller said this week. "(Hill) was duly elected to direct our Wyoming education department, (and) right now I support her remaining in an elected office with her current duties."

--Staff writer Christina George contributed to this story. /

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