On a 50-degree morning in Cheyenne last September 12, the Wyoming state plane shot into the sky, bound for Jackson Hole in the far western part of the state. On board the eleven-seat, twin-engine jet were state school superintendent Cindy Hill and nine members of her staff.
The stated purpose of the trip was to give Department of Education employees a chance to visit School District #1 in Teton County. Arrangements had been made to meet the superintendent and principals in Jackson, but some members of group wondered if their presence was necessary.
Hill meanwhile, had plans to duck out of the school visit to give a presentation at the Teton Pines Country Club.
Last week, an inquiry released by Gov. Mead’s office raised questions about the validity of Hill’s stated purpose for the Jackson visit, as well as other actions by Hill. Information in the review indicates that alleged misuse of federal funds may be more problematic than Hill playing hooky from the school district visit.
In the report, several employees were concerned that some of those who traveled on federal grant money did little or no work relating to federal programs. Some employees who work with federal grants said they believe the only reason they were asked to go on the flight was so Hill could charge the expense to their budgets.
That information adds detail to a previous analysis by the Legislative Service Office, which showed the Department of Education charged $1,416 in federal funds to pay for the Jackson trip.
The federal charges were split equally between special education funds and Title IIa money for improving teacher and leader quality.
The Department of Education paid another $1,708 in state funds for the trip. That money came from the School Foundation Program ($896), an account for child nutrition ($583), and the superintendent’s office ($229).
In the report, deputy superintendent Christine Steele commented that plane trips saved money on travel and time while allowing for a “team” approach that encouraged collaboration. She also defended the Jackson trip as a way for employees to visit schools to learn about best practices.
The discrepancy of views between employees and leadership came to typify the Wyoming Department of Education in the last two years, as suggested in the 185-page report released last week.
The report covers many topics aside from use of the state plane, including personnel issues and misuse of funds.
Earlier this year, Gov. Matt Mead asked Rawlins attorney Cathy MacPherson to conduct the review. She was assisted by state employees Joe Simpson from the Health Department, Norm Bratton from the Department of Audit, and Joyce Hefeneider from the budget division of the Department of Administration and Information.
Based on the report, the Wyoming House of Representatives is contemplating impeachment proceedings against Hill.
Even without impeachment drama, the story of Superintendent Cindy Hill is not likely to end any time soon. Hill filed a lawsuit over Senate File 104 — the 2013 bill that stripped the superintendent job of most of its duties. She may also launch a campaign for governor in 2014.
Back at the Department of Education, employees say they are ready for the controversy to be over so they can focus on their regular duties.
“The work that we do at the Department of Education is good work,” school nutrition supervisor Tamra Jackson told WyoFile. “There are good people here, and for the most part we just want to be able to continue to do our work, and continue to be able to serve the kids and the districts. That’s what we all want to do.”
Buying the “tickets”
The plan for the September 12 Jackson trip fell into place at the last minute. Michele Doyle, executive secretary for Teton County District #1, told WyoFile the district first heard of plans for the visit the day before the group arrived. Teton #1 Superintendent Pamela Shea shuffled schedules and resources to accommodate the group.
Department of Education employees in Cheyenne received more notice about the Jackson trip. Kim Harper in Special Programs received this email from Sheryl Lain on Thursday September 6, six days before the flight:
“Cindy is trying to figure out whether to drive or fly to Jackson next Wed. If she flies, the plane needs to be full and we need a purpose in going. What do you guys think?”
Also in the week before the trip, Hill and her staff invited nutrition programs supervisor Tamra Jackson to Teton County. Hill thought it would be good for Jackson to go into the schools to meet people.
According to the report, Jackson thought the offer was odd, since she often makes visits to schools. She asked if the superintendent wanted her to go in order to use funds from her nutrition budget. Jackson said Hill’s public relations director, Jerry Zellars, said that was not the reason she had been invited.
Jackson told Hill and her team she would only pay for her seat if she could set her own agenda. She explained that Unit 6324 is a federal budget for USDA Nutrition Programs, and she wasn’t going to spend that money unless she could set up her own meetings.
Hill’s team agreed that Jackson could set her own agenda. (In the end, Ms. Jackson’s trip was paid for out of the state nutrition program, not federal money.)
David Holbrook, the director of federal programs for the Department, received an email from Kim Harper asking if special education funds could be used for a flight to Jackson. He ended up spending federal Title IIa money for improving teachers and leaders to cover the trip for Tori Lesher and Christine Steele, both members of Hill’s leadership team.
Most of the state employees who touched down in Jackson at 8:15 a.m. on September 12 were from Cindy Hill’s closest circle of employees, commonly referred to as her leadership team.
These included Christine Steele, Jerry Zellars, Kevin Lewis, Sheryl Lain, and Victoria Lesher.
Also on board were Tamra Jackson and Deb Lindsey, administrator of assessment. Tiffany Dobler and Kim Harper also flew with the team. Both were recent hires working with Special Programs, also known as special education.
If the group had driven, they would have accrued hotel, mileage, and per diem costs for the group. The flight reduced two days of staff travel time to just over an hour. The Wyoming Aeronautics Commission charged the Department of Education more than $1,000 per hour of flight time.
Hill’s staff had called ahead to arrange local transportation. The Teton #1 superintendent Pamela Shea volunteered the Chevy Suburban she normally uses for district business. School district transportation employees dropped off the Suburban and another vehicle at the airport, where the Department of Education group found them waiting.
Leaving the airport, the group drove 12 miles south to visit Jackson Hole High School and Colter Elementary, located next to one another in the southern part of town.
Teton #1 Superintendent Shea and local principals met with the group to update them on the status of the schools.
Tamra Jackson visited with the Teton #1 nutrition specialist Joe DiPrisco about a new federal program that had just been implemented.
“Tamra was doing her job,” DiPrisco told WyoFile.
According to the inquiry, Pier Trudell, a federal grants administrator for Teton #1, spent the duration of the visit with Christine Steele and Tori Lesher. Trudell later informed the state federal programs administrator David Holbrook that neither Christine Steele nor Tori Lesher did any Title IIa work to improve teachers and leaders.
Holbrook said he spent federal money for Steele and Lesher on the understanding they would be doing relevant work while in Jackson. Holbrook asked for an agenda and other documentation, which he needed to justify federal funding. He said he never received any documentation of the trip from Lesher or Steele.
Meanwhile, state special programs employees Tiffany Dobler and Kim Harper made a short tour to meet local special education staff.
According to the report, Harper “felt like they were being intrusive and disruptive at the school. They talked to the principal and did look at a special ed classroom for about 15 minutes.”
At about 11 a.m., Jerry Zellars found Tamra Jackson to give her the keys to one of the district vehicles. He told Jackson, “Cindy and I are going to an event.”
Zellars did not say where they were going. He instructed Jackson to drive the team to the airport if he and Hill did not make it back in time.
The mysterious nature of the lunch visit made Jackson curious, but she didn’t feel comfortable asking about their plans. Hill and Zellars were gone for about two and a half hours, returning in time to drive with the group to the airport.
Hill later told the inquiry team that she did not remember where the meeting was held or the composition of the audience. She did say Zellars had arranged the meeting, and that he was “very excited” about it.
Hill’s lawyer, John Masters, told the inquiry team that the meeting was held at Teton Pines Country Club, which is located at the base of the Tetons north of Wilson. At the club, Hill met with the “Wednesday men’s lunch group,” a low-profile, routine gathering of wealthy Jackson residents that is not affiliated with any national organization. Its members include both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom are wealthy bankers, investment advisors, and businessmen. Several men in the group are active philanthropists. Members include Foster Friess, Bob Newton, Jim Lewis, Bill Scarlett, Laurant Roux, and Buzz Dimont, among others.
Hill mentioned to the inquiry team that Bob Grady was in attendance — he is the manager of Cheyenne Capital Fund, the group that invests a portion of Wyoming’s state investment portfolio in private equity funds.
Nate McLennen, director of the independent Journey School, attended the luncheon as a guest of a group member, and he sat next to Hill. “As an elected official, her job is to reach out to all sorts of people and talk about education. That is not out of the ordinary,” McLennen said. “It is reasonable for her to go around to talk to different constituencies in the state. That’s part of the job.”
Every indication shows that Hill’s visit to the group was merely informational. She played a short video of a local Teton County student involved with Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics teaching.
Hill later told the inquiry team that she’d met a barrage of comments from the members of the group, many of whom seemed to have strong opinions on the matter of public education:
“They were very critical of their own district; they were critical of state education, national education, and the questions were all over the place. The persons that were there appeared to have a vast amount of varying experiences. She had difficulty trying to focus the conversations or the presentation. She [Hill] remembers thinking, ‘what the H____.’”
McLennen said Hill’s speaking at the event “seemed very normal to me. There were some interesting constituents who had a lot of feedback.”
Hill’s account paints the luncheon as a purely education visit, not a political rally or an effort to solicit campaign donors. A check of Hill’s campaign fundraising records show no major gifts where received from Jackson donors following the event.
Any such donations would be unexpected, since Hill was not up for election in 2012, and she had yet to announce her candidacy for governor in 2014.
Following the meeting, Hill and the WDE team returned to the Jackson Hole Airport, where they took off at 3:40 p.m.
They flew east from the Tetons, landing 35 minutes later in Lander at the base of the Wind River Range, where Deb Lindsey got off the plane.
At 4:20 the plane departed again, flying south over the Red Desert to Rock Springs, touching down at 4:45 p.m.
Superintendent Hill and Jerry Zellars got off in Rock Springs. Their purpose in doing so was not recorded in the inquiry report.
After refueling, the plane left Rock Springs at 5:05, and arrived in Cheyenne at 6 p.m.
The Federal Funds Issue
When Hill left the school trip for the luncheon at Teton Pines, it seems that she did so in the normal course of her duties as Superintendent.
The entire issue with the trip then, is whether some of her employees spent a day flying to Jackson on federal dollars, without accomplishing any federal work to speak of.
Hill claimed no knowledge on the funding details of the trip. When the inquiry team told Hill that Title IIa funding had been spent on Christine Steele and Tori Lesher without either woman doing any related work, Hill replied that she didn’t check to see how the plane trips were being funded.
Hill also told the inquiry team that, “Plane payments were decided by Fred Hansen working with division directors and he did not discuss those with her.” Hansen worked as Division Director for Finance.
The federal regulation covering use of federal funds for travel comes from OMB circular 87, pages 3 and 12.
The audit explains that travel costs are only allowable on federal grants if the travel is necessary and reasonable for efficient administration of the federal awards. Further, travel money is only to be spent for employees working in the relevant governmental unit.
Among department employees, it’s a matter of debate whether or not the Jackson Hole trip was necessary for the efficient performance of work paid for by the federal grant.
WDE Special Programs supervisor Kim Harper told the inquiry team: “The trip did not seem to have had much to do with special education, even though they did meet people; it was sort of a gray area.” She thought the trip would have been more beneficial if they had more time to prepare, instead of making arrangements at the last minute.
Christine Steele, a member of Hill’s leadership team, had a different take on the trip: “They went to Jackson to look at the leadership in the school. They had an approach that was very successful.”
Steele felt it was valid for Lesher to travel on Title IIa funding because she works on supplemental professional development.
Steele also said the trip was an opportunity to see a great school in action: “They wanted the WDE team to observe and have interaction with a very successful school district and to look at best practices in action. Tori visited a classroom, worked with others so they could look at how that district had grown leadership.”
Other WDE employees diverged from Steele’s interpretation. Harper recounted that the only reason leadership wanted her and Special Programs director Tiffany Dobler on the plane was, “so they could help pay for the cost of the plane out of their program, even though they really didn’t do anything that moved the program along.”
Dobler was also not convinced of the merit of using federal funds for the trip: “They did go to the Jackson school; it really was not something that was beneficial to the [federal] programs.”
The entire trip to Jackson cost $3,124, or about $300 a person and a little over $1000 per hour for the three-hour flight of four legs.
In the grand scheme of the state budget, it’s not a lot of money, unless one views the entire trip as unnecessary.The full inquiry into the Department of Education is available here.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. Originally from Big Horn, he holds an MA in history from the University of Wyoming and currently lives in Laramie. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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