Much debate on 'Hill bill' as panel approves it 7-0

Jan 23, 2013 By Bob Moen, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- After hearing nearly two hours of testimony, a House committee unanimously endorsed a bill Tuesday evening that would change who runs the state Department of Education.

The House Appropriations Committee approved Senate File 104 on a 7-0 vote. The bill, which is sponsored by legislative leaders in both houses and in both parties, now goes to the House floor for debate. It has already passed the Senate.

The proposal would remove the state superintendent of public instruction as administrator of the Education Department and turn the duties over to a director appointed by the governor.

Superintendent Cindy Hill, who opposes the proposal, said she looks forward to hearing the debate on the House floor.

She said the measure was being "greased" for quick passage.

Sponsors say the state's education system has not functioned well under politicians overseeing a huge, complex department, noting that Hill has failed to follow legislative directives on education accountability measures and agency spending.

Hill has defended her administration of the agency. She says stripping her post of power and placing it in the hands of a bureaucrat would reduce the public's voice in K-12 education.

If the bill passes, the legislation would take effect before Hill's four-year term expires and would represent one the biggest changes in an elected office in Wyoming since the Legislature reorganized the state auditor's office in the early 1990s.

"I voted for Mrs. Hill, good or bad, for a four-year term," Clara Powers, of Wheatland, testified Tuesday. "Now if she doesn't do a good job -- two years from now I'll fire her."

Others argued such a major change in a statewide elected officer's duties should be put to voters to decide through a constitutional amendment.

Supporters of the bill say delaying the move would push back by years Wyoming's efforts to better prepare its school children for college and careers and the state constitution already authorizes the Legislature to determine the superintendent's powers and duties.

"Our kids' futures are at stake here," Janine Bay Teske, of Jackson, testified. "We can wait until the next election, we can put it on a ballot, but we're just continuing to put dirt under our feet and not make change."

Currently, Wyoming and 12 other states have their voters elect the top education official.

Wyoming's superintendent oversees an Education Department with a $1.9 billion two-year budget and about 150 employees. It works with the appointed State Board of Education, the Legislature and the state's 48 school districts to educate more than 89,000 students.

Under the proposal, the superintendent of public instruction would remain an office elected by voters but would have some 30 duties now assigned to the superintendent by law transferred over to a director.

The superintendent's duties on various state boards and commissions would remain intact. In addition, the superintendent would be assigned education duties, including reporting yearly to the Legislature on the state of public education in Wyoming and serving on several boards, such as the State Board of Education and the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

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