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Local lawmakers split on 'Hill bill'

Jan 31, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Fremont County legislators have opposing views on a bill that was signed into law this week modifying the role of Wyoming's elected superintendent of public instruction.

Gov. Matt Mead signed the legislation Tuesday. Afterward, according to published reports, State Superintendent Cindy Hill served Mead with a lawsuit claiming the new law violates the state constitution by creating an appointed director to replace Hill as the head of public schools. But state State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who voted for Senate File 104, said the law does not take away Hill's constitutional right to supervise schools.

"There's a whole list of things (in the bill) that leave that as her responsibility," Bebout said. "She still has the general supervision of public schools as prescribed by law."

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who voted against the bill, said SF104 is "arguably constitutional," but he thinks it goes against the spirit of the Wyoming Constitution, which provides that "the general supervision of the public schools shall be entrusted to the state superintendent of public instruction, whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law."

Noting that state laws are formed by the Wyoming Legislature, Bebout listed several duties retained by the superintendent in SF104. For example, he said Hill still will serve on the State Board of Land Commissioners, and she will continue in her role as a non-voting member of the Wyoming Community College Commission and the Wyoming School Facilities Commission. She'll serve on the State Board of Education, he said, and be an ex-oficio member of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

"And we gave her a couple new things," Bebout said.

He said the bill directs Hill to identify professional development needs for Wyoming school teachers and provide up to five workshops each year for public school instructors. Hill has been asked to file an annual report on the general status of all Wyoming schools, and Bebout said she is tasked with assisting state school districts in developing protocols to reduce injuries related to school athletics. SF104 asks Hill to administer the Wyoming Teacher of the Year program and establish guidelines for the proper and safe storage of toxic chemicals, and Bebout said she has been asked to adopt rules and regulations for the general supervision of public schools -- but not in areas specifically designated to the state board or director.

Accountability

He said the new director of education, who will be appointed and not politically motivated, will be responsible for accountability data and assessment work that Hill was not addressing to the satisfaction of the Legislature.

"We weren't getting the information we needed to do our job," Bebout said, citing internal reports and audits legislators received during debate over SF104. "I haven't read them. I just know the whole impetus behind the bill is, like I said, accountability assessment data. ... We the people of Wyoming and the schools and children all deserve to have good data and proper assessments to be held accountable. She was directed to do that, and it was not happening."

He said he had "no idea" about reports that liaisons to the Legislative Services Office had retracted some of the findings in their audits of Hill's office. But he said legislators have spent years talking about the role of the state superintendent.

"That gets to the bigger picture of all this," Bebout said. "We've had some discussion for 25 years whether the state superintendent should be in charge of doing these types of things for education at all. ... It just kind of came to a head."

He does not think SF104 was developed as a personal attack against Hill.

"We're not trying to teach her a lesson," Bebout said. "We're trying to do what the people demand of the Legislature. ... People are demanding if we're spending all this money why are we not doing better."

He applauded Hill for progress that has been made in Fremont County schools, particularly on the Wind River Indian Reservation. But statewide Bebout said Wyoming spends $1.4 billion a year on education, while students' scores "linger in the middle of the pack."

"The only way I know how to (do better) is to collect data and do assessments so we can be accountable," he said. "When you're not getting data, how can you expect to be accountable?"

Too fast?

State Rep. Dave Miller, R-Riverton, voted against SF104, and though he was absent for the second and third readings due to his mother's death, he said he strongly opposed the bill. In response to comments that Hill was not delivering information requested by the Legislature, Miller pointed out that previous superintendents also haven't responded to lawmakers "perfectly" either.

"I believe (Hill) tried to perform the tasks that she believed were important for bettering the performance of our Wyoming kids," Miller said.

He also didn't approve of the "rushed nature" of the legislation.

"If (Hill) was misappropriating monies there are procedures for impeachment or removal from office," Miller said. "Or just wait two years and the voters could remove her if they are convinced she was not doing her job in the best interest of Wyoming."

Bebout said Hill has not misappropriated any funds.

"I don't know if that rumor's out there," he said. "It's just this accountability piece -- assessment and data."

Case agreed with Miller that SF104 was passed too quickly.

"I believe that such a major change in duties and responsibilities should have been brought as an interim committee bill with plenty of study and opportunity for public input," Case said. "This bill was brought as an individually sponsored bill, conceived in the heat of election-year politics."

Bebout rejected the idea that the SF104 was passed quickly. It passed through the Senate on third reading Jan. 16, and was through the House of Representatives by Jan. 25. On the same day, the Senate concurred with House amendments to the bill and approved the legislation, which was forwarded to Gov. Mead's desk Jan. 25 as well. SF104 was the first bill to be made into law during this Legislative session.

"We didn't suspend any rules; we didn't do anything out of the ordinary," Bebout said. "(It was passed) the way we do all the bills."

Social contract

Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Shoshoni, spoke against SF104 on the floor of the House of Representatives, arguing that the legislation violates a "social contract" between the public and the people they elect.

"Society is based upon the consent of the governed," Winters said. "In our country, the consent of the governed is shown by an electoral contract established by an election for a specified length of time. SF104 stepped between the elected and electorate mid-contract."

Bebout said he has heard from constituents who feel the Legislature has "taken away their right to vote" by modifying Hill's position.

"My answer to them would be she still has the responsibility that constitutionally she was provided as far as general supervision of schools," Bebout said. "We felt we had to make a change, (but) I think as we move forward that Superintendent Hill will do what she's intended to do in terms of the responsibility the constitution gives her."

He acknowledged that people still may think the Legislature acted inappropriately, but he said inaction would have led to a lack of accountability in the state's school system.

Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, Rep. Rita Campbell, R-Shoshoni, and Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, all voted for the bill, but they did not comment on the decision. Bebout said it was a "difficult vote."

"It's not the kind of thing you like to do," he said. "But there are a lot of very substantial reasons (for it). It's all about trying to make this education system better."

He said appropriations to fund Hill's future work and staff likely will come through an amendment to the supplemental budget bill that is making its way through the Legislature.

A judge is scheduled to hear Hill's case Tuesday, Feb. 5. Until then, the law in question is considered to be in effect, and Hill has been ordered to vacate her office at the Wyoming Department of Education no later than Thursday.

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Legislature, Wyoming