SHERIDAN — Local members of the Republican Party have expressed split reactions to the party’s State Central Committee endorsement of a referendum to repeal Senate File 104.
The law enacted by the state Legislature restructured the Department of Education and significantly reduced the duties of the superintendent of public instruction. It was signed by Gov. Matt Mead Jan. 29, creating a director of education position that will be appointed by the governor.
Proponents of the law say it was needed to restructure a poorly managed education department. Those against it say it violates the Wyoming Constitution by taking away the superintendent’s elected power of general supervision of state education.
All four of Sheridan County’s representatives — Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn; Kathy Coleman, R-Sheridan; Mike Madden, R-Buffalo; and John Patton, R-Sheridan — voted for the law. Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, voted for it, and Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, voted against it.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill has filed a lawsuit against the state and the governor regarding the constitutionality of the legislation.
Referendum to repeal SF 104
The Wyoming Constitution Party originally launched the state-wide referendum campaign to get SF 104 repealed through a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot and supporters of the effort in each county are collecting signatures for a petition to do just that.
According to the Wyoming Constitution, a referendum petition must be filed within 90 days after the legislative session adjourns, giving petitioners until May 28 to gather enough signatures. The petition must be signed by qualified voters representing 15 percent of those who voted in the last election in at least two-thirds of the counties of the state. If the petition has enough signatures, the Secretary of State will place the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, and voters will either repeal or approve the legislative restructuring of the Department of Education.
A total of 37,606 signatures will need to be collected statewide. In Sheridan County, Jan Loftus is heading the petition effort. She must get 2,166 signatures from Sheridan County voters.
“To me it’s cut and dry that we need to leave the power in the hands of the people as the constitution reads for Wyoming,” Loftus said. “I was excited to see that the Republican Party endorsed it, as well. I think it brings a lot of added strength to the referendum.”
Controversial committee endorsement
Margaret Tueller of the Lincoln County Republican Party introduced the referendum to repeal SF 104 at the April 6 meeting of the State Central Committee. The meeting was originally held to elect state officers, according to Jesus Rios, chairman of the Sheridan County Republican Party.
A vote to endorse the referendum to repeal SF 104 passed by a majority vote of 40 out of 73 total committee members present. No nay vote was taken, so the remaining 33 voters could have been nay votes or abstentions, Rios said. The State Central Committee consists of the chairman, a committee man and committee woman from each county’s Republican Party.
Rios did not vote for the resolution to endorse the referendum to repeal SF 104.
“There is already a process in place to determine whether or not the Legislature acted in legal authority,” Rios said. “I don’t think a resolution passed by the State Central Committee endorsing the referendum really does anything other than to demonstrate some disagreement with legislators. I don’t think it was the best expression of the Republican Party. I just think there’s a different way to handle this.”
Rios said he felt the endorsement was outside of the purpose — getting Republicans elected — of the central committee and the Republican Party as a whole.
Larry Lawton, chairman of the Lincoln County Republican Party, voted for the endorsement.
“I can’t get Republicans elected if this is going to be the base of the Republican party, that when they (Republican legislators) don’t like someone I elect, they just take away the position,” Lawton said.
Burns was the only local legislator to vote against SF 104 when it was presented during the legislative session. He said he had sponsored two constitutional amendments in past sessions — before Hill was superintendent — that were meant to improve the Department of Education, but he wasn’t comfortable with SF 104.
He said he felt it was a poor use of funds to pay Hill and her staff $1.3 million for the short list of duties she was given after SF 104 passed. He also felt the law created a dichotomy of power between the superintendent and the new director of education.
Even so, Burns was not in favor of the Republican state committee’s endorsement of the referendum to repeal the legislation.
“I’ve never seen a state central committee actually go after the Legislature on any one particular issue, and I’ve been involved for nearly 30 years,” Burns said. “The central committee has decided to vote in favor of one Republican office holder over a number of others.”
Burns also expressed concern about the confusion the constitutional amendment could cause. It will be on the same ballot as a new superintendent of public instruction, which means anyone running for the position won’t know what position they are running for — the one created by SF 104 or one restored by a constitutional amendment.
Coleman voted for SF 104 but not without a lot of personal study. She was originally a “no” vote, she said, but after educating herself about the issues decided she had more reasons to vote for the law than against it. Coleman was recently chair of the Sheridan County Republican Party, but she did not agree with its endorsement effort.
“I don’t think a majority of the population understands what the State Central Committee represents,” Coleman said. “If it takes a position on something like this and actually takes action on an item, there is a huge potential that the people won’t understand that.”
For Berger, SF 104 was about making the Department of Education less complex and more accountable. She believes public education is ultimately in the hands of the Legislature since it is the Legislature that establishes the powers and duties of the superintendent by law.
“When we didn’t see those laws being implemented by our superintendent, we thought we could separate the duties and get more concise information and follow through with the desires of the legislative body,” Berger said.
Berger said she felt frustrated by the central committee’s endorsement of the repeal effort.
“I think it will have an impact on the Republican Party because any time you start criticizing an institution, it does have an impact. It’s a shame there has to be any kind of a split.”
Patton was present at the central committee meeting in Casper April 6 (as were Coleman, Burns and Madden). He was prepared to speak about SF 104, along with a couple other representatives, but he was never asked to do so.
“It was strictly ‘we the people’ against their institution, the Legislature,” Patton said.
Patton has served in various capacities in the Wyoming Legislature and the Department of Education. In 1985, he helped draft an audit report for the state Board of Education that recommended the superintendent and board not have a working relationship based on goodwill. The report said a law should be drafted to clearly define the roles of the Board of Education —making it a stronger, more independent policy-making board or a board that is auxiliary to the superintendent. No action was taken on the audit in the Legislature at that time.
Patton said SF 104 was necessary to improve education at the local level since it will efficiently enact policy he feels the Wyoming constitution gives the Legislature the authority to enact.
“The public and its institutions have to have a better relationship, and I think that will occur because of this. I don’t think either extreme on either side is going to be the victor, but they play a role,” Patton said about the endorsement effort.
Hill, current superintendent of public instruction, was encouraged by the State Central Committee’s endorsement of the referendum to repeal SF 104.
“I wasn’t surprised that they had done that,” Hill said. “I think it’s a reflection of what the people are thinking in Wyoming. Someone said that SF 104 was an attempt to take politics out of education. I would say it took the people out of Wyoming’s education.”
Hill doesn’t think the endorsement effort will split the Republican Party and said she is glad people are talking about the Constitution and education and hopes more people will pay attention to party platforms and what their role is in helping to enact them.
Rose, the interim director of the Education Department, said he has not given much thought to the referendum to repeal SF 104. He is focusing on the duties assigned to him and trying to stay out of the rest.
According to Carol Thompson, State Court Clerk, the Supreme Court Case regarding the legislation could be heard by early fall if it follows the normal briefing schedule. So far, no additional funds have been appropriated to accommodate the changes implemented by SF 104 or to pay for the court case.