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.

Hill's campaign

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.

Sen. Mike Massie (D-Laramie)
Sen. Mike Massie (D-Laramie)

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.

Guest columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact Guy Padgett at guy@wyofile.com or Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. “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.”
    There-in lies the rub, voting “Party-line”, years back, was usually a pretty safe bet of your personal beliefs, today, not so much.
    Voting is a right many nations envy the U.S. for and “We” take it for granted, this is a problem which many are “To Busy” to bother with and seem to accept without reserve,, sad.
    Nowadays it is a responsibility, to research and identify a viable candidate, the Tea Party, (with an “R”) has proven to be a detriment to the Republicans that vote “R” only, just because one is a registered Republican does not mean that you have to vote that way,, Please, if you vote, take the responsibility to do your homework.

  2. I agree completely with Bruce Walgren about impeachment being the best constitutional solution. The “Hill bill” could be a slippery slope with unintended consequences. If the State Treasurer is deemed by a majority of legislators to be incompetent, do they, then, allow the Governor to appoint a CFO to do the duties of the duly elected State Treasurer? How about the State Auditor? How about the Governor, himself? I didn’t vote for Cindy Hill because I thought that Mike Massey was better for the job. I think that a much more important issue than who administers the Department of Education is who is going to run our schools–federal bureaucrats, state legislators or locally elected school boards.
    Is Wyoming and American education any better now than when the federal department of education was established some forty years ago? Is education in the state any better now than when the legislature began usurping control from local boards twenty years ago? Cindy Hill may not be the best State Superintendent of Public Instruction that we’ve had but she was elected by a majority of Wyoming voters. I would like to replace Cynthia Lummis with any one of her staffers, I would like to replace Obama with an experienced and non-political manager but, as an American citizen, I respect the will of the majority in the selection of people I might not like. Recall elections are provided for in the constitution. That is the route that should have been taken.

  3. First off, I would like to thank Kerry Drake for his timely editorial regarding Cindy Hill. My perspective is from that of an insider; I served on the Wyoming Board of Education from 2002 through 2012. The last 2 years were under the “leadership” of Ms. Hill. She exhibited time and time again her LACK of knowledge around education, poor leadership, working in a cooperative fashion with her colleagues, budget expectations as well as budget limitations, and her overall lack of knowledge concerning the educational system in general. It was very evident that upon Ms. Hill beginning her position, that a train wreck was inevitable if she remained in office. I recently wrote an editorial that was published in most Wyoming newspapers. I would encourage any Wyomingite that has not read it to do so. A quote from this editorial is “Any country can survive having chosen a fool as their leader but history has shown time and time again that a nation of fools is surely doomed.” It was almost certain to be the path had Ms. Hill remained in office for another 2 years. I am extremely disappointed in some of the legislators philisophical constitutional rhetoric in regards to her elected position. Another 2 years of her “LACK of leadership” could have resulted in irrepreble damage to our education system directly effecting approximately 20% of the population of our state; in particular our kids. I thank the 62nd Legislature and Govenor Mead for the passage of SF104. Thanks to these individuals, history will not repeat itself. A quote from a book that Senator Ross distributed sums up the travesty of this situation: “Great leadership is a product of great character. And this is why character matters.”

  4. Heard the latest? Hill now wants millions to pay for regional teacher conferences, plus a budget for her Tea Party staff and more travel around the state. LOL! Hill is so discredited and toxic at this point, why would any educator voluntarily have anything to do with her?

  5. …being a state employee, this is what I saw: when C Hill entered her elected position she ordered the closure of the Laramie office. She told all of the employees in that office they would have to relocate to the Cheyenne DOE headquarters. In order to accommodate these people she and her henchman, Kevin Lewis, decided to tear apart the second floor of the Hathaway. They had numerous walls removed thinking they could cram all the relocated into many opened up offices. However, as far as I know not one of the Laramie folks opted for the Cheyenne location and quit instead. So all the Laramie property – desks, computers, chairs etc – ended up stuffed into the basement of the Hathaway. Eventually most of it was sent to surplus to alleviate the mess. To this day the second floor is scarred from that knuckle-headed idea Hill and Lewis came up with. With that kind of thinking it’s no wonder she got the boot. The woman is a disaster who spreads destruction in everything she touches.

  6. Since I have known Mike Massie for many years and know his capabilities, I voted for him. It didn’t take long, during the campaign, to note his superiority and think he would be favored. But then I knew that in Wyoming even a yellow dog could be elected if there was an R behind the name. You have only to look at the make-up of the current legislature to see the truisms of that. What a tragedy.

  7. The fact that Matt Meade spent a great deal of his own money to beat the Tea Party in the last election puts him in the good side of my book. The tea party-evangelic types and the green tea environgelic scientology types are a scary bunch.

  8. Another case of the Wyoming voter getting the leader they deserve. I’m with Woody Allen, because I’m tired of getting the leader they deserve. It’s going to take so much to fix this horrible education system. And then Mead says we don’t need to build more schools. I drive my grandchild across town, when we are a couple blocks from his neighborhood elementary. It’s a madhouse.

  9. Kerry got it just right. It surprised me during the 35 years I lived in Wyoming how people who pride themselves on their independence, the people of Wyoming, could be so slavishly bound to so many second rate candidates: Craig Thomas, Barbara Cubin, Cynthia Lummis, and, as only one example in the legislature, the antic Gerald Gay.
    These folks are what the British used to call ‘back benchers’ from what were called ‘rotten boroughs’. That is, they were mediocrities from safe electoral districts which would continually re- elect them despite their lack of depth, thought, originality, or ability.
    It is true that for the governor’s office Wyoming has had the good sense to elect a number of highly qualified Democrats. Each of them, however, has had to overcome the disadvantage of being a Democrat by being at least three times as capable as his opponent. When the Democrat was only, say, twice as good as his opponent we ended up with Jim Geringer as governor

  10. If you wish to understand this, sit beside me at the next election, when I expect I will again staff the new registrations/changes desk at a precinct polling place. You might see some of the things I’ve seen, like:
    • an intellectually challenged eligible voter who demanded loudly to know which of the candidates for city council (a nonpartisan position) were republicans;
    • any number of newly registering voters —young and old— who don’t know what a party platform is but are quite confident they’re republican;
    • an 18 year-old whose parents I had just registered as republicans who, encouraged to make an independent decision about party affiliation, wanted to know what party Obama belongs to.
    And endlessly on.
    Or we could spend some time on the campaign trail, where i’ve been treated to a full-bore hate stare, and to a voter who, understanding who i was and what i was doing on her doorstep, said, “oh, we’re republicans,” and closed the door, along with dozens of other voters who wanted to know what a county commissioner does, or who their current representative in the state house is. It is worse now, i’m told, than when i last ran.
    I think what is going on was addressed in a book titled The Big Sort. The author observed that americans increasingly are relocating to areas more thickly populated with others of similar political persuasion. He postulates that on arrival, they find like-minded people and, in order to improve their chances of being accepted, present bona fides a bit more to the right or left (respectively) of the average position of the group, shifting the average further off center. then the next individual arrives, does the same thing, with the same result. You can look at the change in the registration differential in Wyoming and see this. Hill is the ultimate chicken come home to roost, the full flowering of this effect.
    But the worst is the vicious cycle established: ignorant, thoughtless or ill-advised choices in the voting booth, resulting in less than optimum education and begetting generation after generation of increasingly ignorant voters. hard to see daylight.

  11. wyoming has the commission form of government and i think it’s scarier that the superintendent of public instruction sits on a variety of state boards and commissions along with the other four top elected state officials. one of those is the state lands investment board which is charged with granting funds to cities, towns and counties for infrastructure improvements, police and fire protection. in my way of thinking, these duties are far from ceremonial.

  12. Exactly, Zach. I want to add that much of the media in this state is muzzled by conservative publishers who refuse to allow reporting of anything that tarnishes their pet candidates and issues. It’s good to see Kerry finally unleashed to call it as he sees it.

  13. Douglas, evidently you weren’t reading the news reporting about the Hill/Massie race. Even legislators were coming out for Massie, but to a large percenage of Wyoming voters, anything that is reported by the media is liberal, socialist, propaganda. They don’t trust the messenger even when the delivery is factual.

  14. A lot of people are still licking the wounds from Cindy Hill’s defeat of Mike Massie, including some Republican legislators, but to say Massie lost simply because he was a Democrat is to ignore the many Democratic governors this “red” state has elected and reelected over the last 35 years (Herschler, Sullivan, Freudenthal). The contrast in qualifications between Massie and Hill has been many times repeated with dumbfounded eye rolling, but we might learn more, even this far down the road, by examining the complexity of Wyoming’s political character and ballot box decisions. Specific to Hill-Massie, consider the differences in their campaign strategies, how much money each raised, how they spent it, how they chose and presented issues, and how they mobilized supporters. Finally, the press should consider its own role (mea culpa, here): would it have made a difference if there had been more and better reporting by the state’s major media, more resources invested in documenting, or refuting, some of the stories that were circulating (unpublished) about the candidates at the time? Given the Rube Goldberg “solutions” now being improvised to run our public education system, this would not be an exercise in political nostalgia – it might provide insights into how to make better democratic (small “d”) decisions in future elections.

  15. My thoughts exactly, Douglas. It is next to impossible to get the “real” news here in Gillette because of the very reason you describe. I’ve often suspected that the staff at our local paper simply pulls the story off the news feed, adds a few comments from locals to give it that hometown feel and puts the story to bed. Investigative journalism must be expensive and maybe that’s why publishers don’t encourage it.

  16. I agree with Douglas Shupe. While Cindy Hill was a train wreck, I must have missed all of the reporting about her short comings during the campaign. While Wyoming does have a tendency to elect those with an R, let’s not also forget the many D’s who’ve been elected to major offices – Sullivan, Karpan, Freudenthal. Wyoming voters are more than willing to put the qualified candidates in office. However, in small state with very limited media options, journalist also have a duty to report on the candidates and “dig” into their pasts. As a voter I can only investigate so much and am depending on the media I consume to help me make an educated decision; perhaps that’s my fault.

  17. Next she wants to run for governor. So she can clash with the legislature on everything else too.

  18. To Kerry’s excellent analysis, I would add that Cindy was also Drake Hill’s wife. Drake Hill was a former chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, and Cindy was widely known in the party and thus garnered support. Sadly, all too many Wyoming voters look no further than the “R” or “D” behind a name, to decide whom to support. Cindy obviously had few, if any, skills and experience to bring to the table, and was simply riding the Tea Party’s resentment of that Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist-Athiest-Gungrabber in the White House.
    What should have tipped off a wider number of people was the extreme partisanship of Drake Hill. Cindy can be quite charming, but she’s obviously as extreme, or moreso, than her hubby.

  19. This is a completely accurate analysis and accurately reflect what many in the state with education experience were feeling during the primary. Ms. Hill quit her full-time job before being fired and campaigned nonstop around the state with an amorphous, feel-good narrative of being “about the kids”. As an education reporter, I had the opportunity to interview both her and Mr. Massie during the campaign. One gave clear, well-thought out answers and provided a clear blueprint of how to improve education in the state. The other gave feel-good, nebulous responses and treated me (and other journalists who asked serious, probing questions) like toddlers who didn’t need to know any details.

    Many senior Republicans saw through this charade and endorsed Mr. Massie, as did most in the state with education experience. There is a reason 40 states don’t elect this position, just as state officials like the WYDOT commisioner or AG aren’t elected. Ms. Hill was woefully unqualified for this position, won because she had an “R” in front of her name on the ballot and then proceeded to mismanage the department into shambles. While it’s sad that the legislature was forced to take the action it did, this position should never be an elected one.

  20. Maybe I missed it in all the reporting about this situation, but doesn’t The State of Wyoming have a method of removing an elected official from office (impeachment?) If Hill was indeed not doing her job could they not legally remove her from office instead doing it legislatively? In my opinion, the Rs got what they deserved now they get to deal with it.

  21. Well put! I felt this way at the time the blind faithful made this mistake, and still feel so to this day. The ignorant R sheep of this state need to forget their party allegiance and vote the best qualified candidate, regardless of stated party affiliation. Until this happens this state is doomed to more mistakes of this type.

  22. Mr. Drake is correct in this welcome analysis of the train wreck that is Wyoming politics. Hill won in the general election because she had an R next to her name. The more qualified candidate was not similarly equipped on the ballot.

    But there are a couple of questions that this column leaves unanswered. How did Hill win that primary? Who were her backers and what did they hope to achieve? What did Hill think she’d achieve as Superintendent, and why would such a neophyte choose to run for state office? I suspect the answers to these questions would reveal the depth of the apathy that plagues Wyoming politics. A tiny coterie of extremists saw that they had a chance to win statewide office and took advantage of a very real lack of qualified candidates. Her backers are now crying foul but they’re so obscure and politically disconnected that no one even notices.

    Thanks for the guest column. I hope it opens up some dialogue about how Wyoming’s political culture has degenerated to the point that an unqualified neophyte can win state office, perform so horribly and flame out so spectacularly.

  23. A spot-on analysis, Kerry. I was certainly disappointed when Mike Massie was so soundly beaten in the election, but even more so when the voters’ mistake became so apparent over the past two years. At least as far as the superintendent’s post, no one can claim that we have anything resembling a meritocracy in Wyoming.

    I do applaud the Legislature’s decision to strip the job of its powers, although I wonder what that means should we elect someone who is actually competent.

  24. Noteworthy, that Kerry Drake has no such recriminations to make against journalists.

    Apparently, Kerry thinks the electorate is duty bound to complete their own investigations into those standing for office or blindly accept news reports.

    News reporting to many in the esteemed profession of journalism is simply rearranging the paragraphs of stories off the wire service.

    I think we can give the voter considerable latitude upon considering journalism’s abysmal record on balanced, objective and accurate reporting.