Wyoming voters may have elected their last superintendent of public instruction last month if the Legislature next year approves a proposal to make the top educational official an appointed position — but only if voters reach the same conclusion.
Since statehood, 124 years ago, the superintendent has been one of five elected officials in state government. House Joint Resolution 2, sponsored by the Joint Interim Education Committee, would make the newly elected superintendent, Jillian Balow, a one-term official, unless she is appointed to succeed herself in 2019.
Several members of the Education Committee expressed doubts in recent weeks that a long-rumored attempt to remove the superintendent as an elected official would be considered in the general session that begins Jan. 13.
Five days before the panel’s Dec. 10-11 meeting in Jackson, Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), co-chairman of the committee, told the news site County 10, “I am not sure if the Joint Education Committee has the stomach for an amendment right now. [But] the pieces I have read are indicative that the people of Wyoming would support a change.”
Members must have found their stomachs could cope with the weighty decision, though, because they voted 7-5 to approve bringing a constitutional amendment to the Legislature for its consideration. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) voted by phone and Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle) left his proxy vote with the Legislative Service Office, but two other members who also weren’t actually at the meeting — Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) and Sen. Paul Barnard (R-Evanston) — were excused but apparently did not know about the vote in advance.
Coe told reporters the committee’s vote won’t be closed until Connolly and Barnard officially weigh in, but the resolution still passed.
A major change such as a constitutional amendment would require two steps. The first is having two-thirds of both the House and Senate approve HJR 2.
If that happens during the 2015 general session, the proposed amendment would be placed on the 2016 general election ballot. Only a simple majority is needed to pass an amendment, but on the ballot anyone who doesn’t vote “yes” or “no” on the issue is automatically counted as a “no.”
If voters approve the amendment, the superintendent’s position would not be on the ballot for the 2018 general election. The governor would select someone to be in charge of public education for the state, and the person chosen would begin the job on Jan. 7, 2019.
Rothfuss said he voted in favor of the resolution calling for an amendment. He noted that a state commissioned study by educational consultants Crofts & Joftus of Baltimore, Md., identified a major flaw in Wyoming’s system of educational governance.
“If you have conflicts between the Board of Education and the superintendent of public instruction, there’s no way to determine who wins in that circumstance,” the state senator said.
Because Crofts and Joftus did not identify any single governance structure as the best model to emulate, Rothfuss said the right way to decide the issue is to bring it to the Legislature, then the public.
“And then we can move on,” he added.
Rothfuss said just because the Joint Education Committee voted to sponsor the joint resolution, it does not necessarily mean a majority of members support the proposed action. But several indicated they thought a process that would allow the public to vote on the matter was the best way to reach a decision.
Rothfuss, who has been on the committee since his first year in the Legislature in 2011, said he previously sponsored an unsuccessful bill to make the superintendent an appointed position. One of his concerns with the election process is that “it just doesn’t identify [candidates] who should be running an agency.”
Co-Chairman John Patton (R-Sheridan) said several committee members who supported the proposal were “worked up” about it, but he wasn’t one of them. He voted against it.
“My job is to make sure the public and the Legislature fully comprehend what they are doing,” Patton said. He added cryptically that the amendment could result in “unintended consequences” if approved.
Under HJR 2, the superintendent would be removed as a member of the State Board of Land Commissioners and as an ex-officio member of the University Of Wyoming Board Of Trustees. The Land Board change could be problematic, because there would be four state elected officials serving on it, which could result in many tie votes. The resolution does not spell out how that situation would be addressed.
Patton said he expects there will be a lot of discussion about HJR 2 when it hits the House floor, especially over whether the governor or the Board of Education should select the new schools chief.
Patton believes many lawmakers would support the resolution out of the frustration they experienced with Superintendent Cindy Hill, who in 2013 was removed as head of the Education Department by the Legislature. She returned to office earlier this year when the Wyoming Supreme Court found portions of the new law unconstitutional, and the director chosen by Gov. Matt Mead to run the Department of Education lost his job with Hill’s return.
Hill did not run for re-election. Republican Jillian Balow defeated Democratic candidate Michael Ceballos in November.
Not surprisingly, Balow has been vocal about her opposition to the amendment that would kick her out of office after one term.
“It is important that every parent and every taxpayer has the opportunity to have a say in who the state’s chief education officer is,” Balow told County 10. “There is no better way to ensure that parents and taxpayers are not overlooked than the electoral process.”
She added that now the superintendent serves on several state boards and commissions and is held accountable to voters for her decisions, while a director would not be.
“Working on the governance structure in partnership with the Legislature is important and adjustments could have a positive impact on our state,” Balow said. “However, there is no research to support the notion that an appointed state superintendent of public instruction will lead to improved student outcomes. We must keep this issue in perspective and place discussions that affect children and families in Wyoming as a priority.”
Crofts and Joftus surveyed stakeholders — including teachers, parents and administrators — and the public, and both groups supported an appointed superintendent.
But a scientific poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research commissioned by the Casper Star-Tribune in October found 68 percent of Wyoming voters favor electing the superintendent.