Panel Votes to Keep Superintendent An Elected Office

Panel Votes to Keep Superintendent An Elected Office

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After being deluged with emails asking them to kill an attempt to appoint a superintendent of public instruction instead of electing one, the House Judiciary Committee on Monday succumbed to the pressure and overwhelmingly rejected it.

The vote was along partisan lines, with Democratic Reps. Mary Throne of Cheyenne and John Freeman of Green River voting for House Joint Resolution 2, and all seven Republicans voting against it. But one of the Democrats said they didn’t like it very much, either.

A companion resolution in the Senate, SJ 5, has yet to be heard by the Senate Education Committee. But with its House counterpart already shot down in flames, even if the full Senate approves the resolution, it doesn’t seem to have any future. The road to passage in the House goes through its Judiciary Committee, which has already rendered its verdict.

Several members of the House panel said they voted to sponsor HJ 2 earlier because they wanted to learn what the public wanted to do. They said they heard the loud outpouring of opposition loud and clear.

“Moving this [resolution] forward would be an exercise in futility, because I think the end result would still be the same,” said Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment). “I think the people of Wyoming have spoken, and this is an opportunity for us to stop the process and save ourselves a lot of time.”

The House resolution was only the initial step in the process of approving a constitutional amendment to appoint a superintendent. Two-thirds of both the House and Senate would have had to approve the resolution, and then a simple majority of voters would decide the issue at the next general election.

Even though she voted in favor of HJ 2, Minority Floor Leader Throne said she wasn’t a fan of the proposal. But she wondered why there has been such a strong change in the public’s attitude.

“I find it more than a little ironic that the same group of people who two years ago had our heads because we didn’t propose a constitutional amendment is now telling us we can’t trust the people, that they aren’t smart enough to decide this issue,” Throne said.

Perhaps while voters originally expressed buyer’s remorse after electing controversial Cindy Hill superintendent of public instruction in 2010, they no longer want to give up their voice in choosing the state’s top schools chief.

Hill’s fourth and final year in office was a mess. The Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead took away most of her duties to run the Department of Education, and left her in a mostly ceremonial position for almost a year. She sued, and the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled the defendants unconstitutionally took away the voters’ right to elect the superintendent of their choice.

The current holder of the elected office, Jillian Balow, testified against HJ 2.

“Spending my life in education, I know it’s very tempting for us to be on this quest for a silver bullet to fix all of our problems,” she said. “But there’s no such thing as a silver bullet in education.”

Balow noted last year lawmakers commissioned a report on the governance structure of public education in Wyoming, which found an appointed superintendent “is actually the least stable of all the governing structures [and] leads to more turnover.”

“The best way for people to have a direct voice in who is the leader of education in the state is at the ballot box,” she added.

Tom Schmidt of Laramie, who said he was at the hearing representing only himself, spoke against centralizing more of state government. He said education should be controlled at the local level by school boards as much as possible.

Taylor Haynes, a retired doctor and rancher who finished second in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, agreed. He said appointing a superintendent would amount to “doubling down on a failed system.”

Only a few people spoke at the hearing, all in favor of keeping the superintendent an elected position. Education Chairman Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) kept asking if anyone wanted to address the committee, but finally gave up when he didn’t get any more takers.

“I’ve worked hard to calm things down. Now I’m working hard to get some life going [on the issue],” Patton said to much laughter.

Freeman, a former teacher, said he used to believe that an appointed superintendent would be better than an elected one.

“I thought that an elected superintendent of instruction comes with some baggage,” he related. “But we have a new elected superintendent who has only been in the job for three weeks, and maybe we can make this system work if everybody gets together.”

Freeman concluded, “We’ve gone through a very ugly period of education governance. … But I think some time, in the distant future, we have to look at the governance structure [of education] and say who is in charge of policy and codify that, and who is in charge of enforcement and codify that. We have to come up with a system that works.”

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