Guest column by Kerry Drake February 5, 2013
All of the signs of the impending train wreck that has been Cindy Hill’s tenure as Wyoming’s education chief were visible during her puzzling campaign for the job in 2010.
So as the Department of Education crashed and burned around her, it wasn’t surprising at all to hear her blame the “good ol’ boys” in the Legislature for taking away most of her official duties, leaving her in a largely ceremonial position where she can do relatively little damage to the state’s public schools system in her two remaining years in office.
While not as dramatic as Hill’s last-ditch effort to keep lawmakers from giving the governor the power to appoint the director of the education department, her campaign demonstrated her unwillingness to accept blame for failures and her headstrong attitude that if you don’t agree with her, you must be against “the kids.”
She didn’t share her four-part plan to improve schools in the state until a few weeks before the election — and when she did, her proposal was alternately simplistic and vague. She dodged all but two debates with her opponent, and those came right before the election.
Shortly before ballots were cast, Hill’s former boss — ex-Laramie County School District 1 superintendent Ted Adams — claimed she’d been fired as assistant principal of a Cheyenne junior high school.
Not so, said Hill. “I have not done anything wrong,” she told the Casper Star-Tribune. “I have not done anything wrong — ever.”
It turned out that Hill resigned her position, but only after being informed she was not being recommended to be rehired. She had been ordered to participate in at least two improvement plans while at the school.
Adams was a fellow Republican who lost badly to Hill in the GOP primary for superintendent of public instruction, finishing last in the four-way race. His criticism of Hill — that she was “not qualified in any way for that position” — may have sounded like sour grapes at the time. But several of her former colleagues agreed with his assessment.
Several teachers filed grievances against Hill for how she treated them. One described her as a bully who pitted staff members against each other and told different stories to different people.
Hill, meanwhile, accused teachers’ unions of spreading lies about her after she won the primary.
By contrast, the Democratic nominee, Mike Massie of Laramie, had exceptional credentials for the job, having worked in early education and special education for about 30 years. He’d served in the Wyoming Legislature for 15 years, gaining much knowledge of public school issues and the challenges of funding while serving on the House and Senate Education committees. He also knows how to reach compromises with legislators in the majority party.
Massie had released a detailed, professional plan in April 2010 about what he would do if elected, giving voters nearly seven months to study his proposal and ask questions.
But Massie’s obviously superior experience was ignored by most voters in this ultra-red state for one reason: He was a Democrat. Massie was trounced in the general election by more than 41,000 votes.
Hill’s early days at the Department of Education were focused on cleaning house. Many top senior staff members were either reassigned, fired or forced out of their jobs. Some people with little experience were placed in key leadership positions.
Her contempt for the Legislature was not hidden at all. Against lawmakers’ wishes, she redirected funds to programs they had not approved. She denies it, but employees have charged she told them she had no intention of complying with the Legislature’s education accountability plan.
Obviously, her inability to work with the Legislature was Hill’s downfall. The Republican majority’s attack on one of their own was unprecedented. An attempt to strip her of most of her powers failed by only a few votes last year, and should have convinced the superintendent that they really were out to get her. Instead of trying to improve the relationship, she charged boldly ahead with the attitude that they wouldn’t dare usurp “the will of the people.”
That proved foolhardy. In 2013 legislative leaders pushed the “Hill bill,” plowing through the process in record time and presenting it to Gov. Matt Mead, another Republican who seemed happy to sign it.
Hill’s two-prong reaction was to file a lawsuit against the state and announce her candidacy for governor in 2014. The former has little chance of succeeding, and the latter has none at all.
The Wyoming Supreme Court’s landmark 1995 decision on school funding affirmed the Legislature’s ultimate authority over the public school system, and the Legislative Service Office experts have expressed confidence in the constitutionality of the changes lawmakers made to the superintendent’s duties.
While there is indeed a populist case that Hill’s lawyers can make that admonishes legislators for gutting the power of a duly elected state official in the middle of her term, it shouldn’t be nearly enough to sway the justices to rule in her favor.
Legislative leaders probably overstated their case that Hill, if left unchecked, would destroy education in the state. But it’s important to realize that this whole fiasco could have been avoided if voters had more responsibly evaluated the superintendent candidates’ abilities instead of blindly voting for the one with an “R” behind her name.
— Kerry Drake has 37 years of journalism experience at Wyoming’s two largest daily newspapers. He lives in Casper.
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