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Desperate for scandal

Feb 8, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

The time to audit the state education department was before Cindy Hill was ransacked, not after

Now that it has boiled the duties of Wyoming's Superintendent of Public Instruction down to a skeletal shell of what they used to be, now that it has banished Superintendent Cindy Hill from her own desk and moved her off the premises of the Department of Education, and now that it has done its darndest to trash her career and destroy her reputation -- only now the Wyoming Legislature has decided to see once and for all if there is any justification for doing it.

Good idea. Bad timing.

The House of Representatives wants the state to conduct a top-to-bottom audit of the Wyoming Department of Education in order, in the words of State Rep. Cathy Connolly of Laramie, "to get to the bottom of this, if it is true."

She refers to the allegations that funds have been misused under Hill's administration and that there has been "misconduct" in the department that has led to disgruntled staff.

In supporting the $150,000 request for the audit, House Speaker Tom Lubnau of Gillette said "I don't know the validity of these allegations, but I know the allegations exist."

Funny, but the legislators seemed dead-solid certain that the allegations were true last month when they allowed the bill ruining both Hill and her elected office to be galloped through the Capitol and to the governor's desk at race-car speed. Every day of the fast-tracked debate brought more claims that Hill was guilty of assorted -- but never specified -- "impropriety" and "behavior" that lawmakers didn't like, and of "missing deadlines" that delayed "needed reforms" in the state's education system.

In record time, Hill's powers were stripped, an appointed bureaucrat was put in place, and the superintendent was assigned an office that apparently had been a junk repository until the day she arrived. (The office situation improved recently; after word spread about the storage-closet nature of her new digs, Hill since has been given a better work space on an upper floor.)

"Ready, fire, aim" is the three-word joke on people whose actions appear rash. The phrase seems fitting for a Legislature that would go to such high-profile trouble to trash the superintendent and her office -- and take a public beating for it -- and only after the deed was done decide to construct a rationale for it.

There is much evidence demonstrating that Hill's Department of Education has been one of the most heavily audited and closely scrutinized departments of state government over the past year already. Repeatedly during the legislative process aimed at gutting her authority, she and others practically begged her inquisitors to show the evidence of her shortcomings, but the proof never materialized. Vague pronouncements and general expressions of disapproval were all the foundation the astounding action ever had going for it.

The time for a legislatively sponsored audit of a supposedly mismanaged department was before the lawmakers decided to ransack the superintendent and her office. Now, buffeted by strong public opinion against what they've done to her, Hill's antagonists appear almost desperate to find a scandal they can pin on her and save face for themselves.

Perhaps the new audit will do it. But they had better hurry. Hill has dragged the State of Wyoming into court already, and she has announced that she will run for governor in 2014 as well.

Anyone who hoped she might cut and run, as former Superintendent Trent Blankenship did in 2005 after he supposedly ran afoul of the wrong people in Cheyenne, has been disappointed so far. Hill is proving to be a fighter, and when the big picture is considered, this fractured, mishandled war waged against her in Cheyenne very well may have left her more powerful, not less.

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