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Hill took heat in first year as state superintendent

Mar 18, 2012 - By Bob Moen, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- Just over a year into her job as Wyoming's top public education official, Cindy Hill is finding that the learning curve in managing a large government agency can be more challenging than running a grade school.

Under her watch, Hill has seen an exodus of employees from the Department of Education. One former division director contended the department has become a hostile workplace -- an accusation Hill denies.

Meanwhile, lawmakers proposed legislation to make her job an appointed position rather than an elected one.

Still, Hill is unbowed in her drive to change how the education department manages Wyoming's $1.5 billion a year public education system. Under her direction, the department has concentrated more on teacher development.

"I acted on my promises, and I sleep well at night," she said in a recent interview.

In 2010, Hill left her job as administrator of a Cheyenne junior high school to run for superintendent of public instruction. She defeated incumbent Jim McBride in a primary and won the general election over Mike Massie, a former state senator.

Hill focused in her campaign on changing the state agency from one that burdens school districts with filing cumbersome reports to one that helps districts instruct their students.

One of her first moves was to change the titles of top officers to "instructional leaders." She also created a program in which teachers statewide to share best teaching practices.

Some employees who served under McBride were replaced or left. In fact, 50 of some 150 employees working for the department in November 2010 had left the agency as of Feb. 23, according to state personnel records. About half of those positions remained unfilled.

Peggy Brown-Clark was among those who left. She was a division director for special education before taking a similar job with the Colorado Department of Education.

Brown-Clark said many employees felt they were working in a "hostile" environment because the new administration was forcing people to leave.

The loss of institutional knowledge left the agency in chaos, she said.

Before departing for Colorado, Brown-Clark sent an email to other state agencies expressing concerns about the department.

"I just didn't feel like I could walk away without saying something, and I believed that it was something that state agencies needed to be aware of because it was hurting people, and it was not OK with me and it was not OK with a lot of people," she said.

Hill downplayed the departures.

"We're fine," she said. "People retire, people move on to higher paying jobs. Lots of our people did."

She allowed that some longtime employees found the change in department focus uncomfortable.

"Whenever there's change, it's hard," Hill said. "I think that it's been a little bit more difficult for those who have a vision of the department as a compliance-oriented agency."

Hill said the only employee she's aware of who was forced to leave was a data management specialist accused in the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of a third in Cheyenne in August.

The turnover hasn't gone unnoticed by school districts.

"The thing that we've noticed is the fact that they've had so many people moving around and leaving the department that it's difficult to get answers at times," said Stuart Nelson, superintendent of Platte County School District 1 in Wheatland.

Nelson said his district has had trouble getting help on funding and special education matters.

Hill said her agency has answered any questions from those who need them.

"Some districts told people that they couldn't get questions answered, but we've never had calls from them -- so you wonder about those folks," Hill said.

Still, some lawmakers have questioned Hill's transfer of more than $200,000 from other department programs, without legislative approval, to create a program that brings teachers together to share best classroom practices.

They also wonder if the personnel turnover might jeopardize the agency's ability to handle the copious amounts of data required to track teacher and student performance.

Two legislators introduced measures to make the superintendent job a governor-appointed position. The legislation didn't go anywhere in the budget session that ended earlier this month.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, criticized the department on the floor of the Senate, questioning its commitment to the Legislature's drive for more accountability in public schools.

"The frustrations I've had are just I don't think we've had the cooperative spirit down there that I'd like to see," said Coe, who supported Massie in last year's general election.

Hill insisted the department is solidly behind the accountability effort. She called the criticism leveled against her mostly political -- criticism that does nothing to improve how Wyoming educates its children.

"We feel really good about what's going on in the department," Hill said. "The conversation has become about instruction instead of just compliance. Compliance is important but instruction is necessary if we're going to increase our students' performance."

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