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Report critical of Hill includes account of an 'uncomfortable' birthday party

Jun 23, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Responding to a state report accusing her of mismanagement of the Wyoming Department of Education, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill said the document is the product of "a handful of employees" who wanted to her to fail and do not reflect the attitudes and opinions of the "many hard-working and dedicated people at the WDE."

At a taxpayer cost of $810 per page, the 185-page document presented last by Rawlins attorney Catherine MacPherson at the conclusion of her inquiry into Wyoming Department of Education practices under produced numerous allegations, among the most colorful of which was an account of a birthday party, but relatively little documented or verifiable substance.

Anecdotal data

Claims of improper actions, misplaced funds and practices that made entrenched members, mostly anonymous, of the WDE "uncomfortable" dominated the report. But the report is short on specific accounts, purchases, dates or substantive evidence other than the recollections of staff.

The report offers little or no verification of misconduct under Hill's tenure other than the anecdotal -- a significant quantity of which appears to be third-hand in-formation from people who were not witnesses to the actual events.

'Handful of employees'

Speaking from Washington, where she was attending a national conference of school superintendents, Hill said the auditors concentrated on the accounts of "a handful of employees who had, and may continue to have, an agenda focused on undermining and, in some instances, sabotaging the efforts of the WDE.

"The report tells of secret, off-site meetings, code words, and secret communications to entities outside of WDE by this small group."

One claim based on events from Nov. 19, 2012, that WDE staffers were distraught over Hill using a knife to cut birthday cake at an impromptu party in a conference room the Hathaway Building took 18 pages and the entire chapter 15 of the report at a cost of $14,580. It contained detailed testimony of seven staffers describing the apparently disturbing manner in which Hill was cutting and handing out birthday cake.

Comments in quotation marks were taken directly from the Governor's Inquiry Team Report Regarding Wyoming Department of Education. The members of that inquiry team remain anonymous.

The entire report is available at the following link: http://audit.state.wy.us/PFUNDS/stateagencies.asp

WDE employee Elaine Marces described the event as follows:

"Cindy was cutting the cake; she was waiving the knife around saying, "I will not be bullied" and stating that she knew how to deal with bullies because she had worked in a junior high. At that point, the employee had to walk out because employee just couldn't stand it any longer. Employee called her husband and was crying, concerned that they were going to get rid of her because they think I am eavesdropping.

"Employee states that it was just a big mess. The work environment was not okay, it was very stressful."

A similar comment on unnamed, anonymous employees at the gathering was made by staffer Susan Benning:

"On Cindy's birthday, they were trying to get people together to celebrate. Things were going badly with the Legislature and Cindy had a knife and was making comments about 'I know bullies.' Employee states that employee knows that some people thought that was very threatening."

In the report narrative it was indicated that Hill larger ran out of small plastic plates and some of the staffers didn't get any birthday cake and were upset.

An additional claim that staffers were holding hands in a trust-building session led by Hill caused great concern for several employees.

Beth VanDeWege described her version of the trust building session.

"It was "very culty" in how it was presented, she said. Her impression was that Cindy (Hill) was trying to get these new employees on her side. Beth felt very threatened.

"Kevin (Lewis) was there and they were taking notes. She knew as well as other employees that Cindy and Kevin and the others were very big into who was loyal, who they could trust, who wasn't loyal.

"She thought it was a very culty, weird thing and she felt very threatened by it. VanDeWege had written a letter to the Legislature about this weird stuff. They [the leadership] were going crazy trying to prove that she had used work time or work paper or work computer to write that letter. She knew they were doing that so that they could fire her.

"Beth states that she was smarter than that. She used her own time, her own computer, and wrote the letter from home."

Long term WDE employee Gail Eisenhauer didn't attend the meeting but upon hearing about it went to the conference room and took a photograph of the white board in the room.

"There had been a meeting with a select group of employees, those who had essentially been hired within the last year and were new employees.

"She saw the comments that are in the picture on that white board in that room on the same day after they had a meeting in there. She stated those kinds of comments were very typical.

:The meeting that she's talking about occurred when things were starting to fall apart in the Department. She stated that Cindy's attitude was that you didn't need external accountability if you have high quality education."

A reading program at Fremont County District 38 at Arapahoe figures into the report. The Wyoming Reads (WYR) program at Arapahoe drew heavy criticism from several WDE staffers, whose comments failed to note the improvements in individual student reading scores after the program, but who did complain because some employees been required to travel to Arapahoe from Cheyenne and observe the program in action.

Much concern was directed toward the writing of a School Improvement Grant at the school. The initial grant request involved a South Dakota company suggested by then-WDE consultant Paige Fenton Hughes. District 38 opted not to pursue that program, and the company was dismissed from the writing phase.

Fremont 38 business manager John Law did most of the grant writing using Wyoming's automated, online Grant Management System. Joy Mockelmann was the WDE SIG Grant and Title I coordinator and briefly assisted Law with some of the aspects of the grant.

Mockelmann expressed concern that some WDE staff who would work with children at Arapahoe were not elementary teachers.

"Joy stated that under Title I, one of the requirements is that the persons providing instruction are supposed to be highly qualified in the subject matter.

"In addition, the persons that serve as para-professionals are also supposed to be highly-qualified; the details of those requirements are in the federal regulations. That was a concern that had been expressed. The people that were there providing services were Diane Frazier, Roy Hoyle, Sandy Porter, and Laurie Hernandez.

"She knows Laurie was a certified teacher, but was not highly qualified in the area of reading; Sandy Porter was not a Wyoming certified teacher as she let her certificate lapse.

"The only two that were highly qualified were Paige [Fenton-Hughes] and Joy. While Craig [Sorensen] was a certified teacher, he was a high school teacher and not elementary so he would not have been highly qualified. Gail [Eisenhauer] was a teacher, but she did not have the right certification to be deemed highly qualified."

Those requirements are stipulated under Title 1, but records show that Fremont 38 did not use Title I funds in the WYR program, rendering the concerns in the report unfounded. Most of the eventual 10 full time tutors hired by Fremont 38 were not teachers at all but were trained by WYR directors Jane Brutsman and Joan Brummond and were able to increase student reading scores by an average of 2.8 years in five months of daily 30 minute sessions.

McPherson makes no mention of the results of the WYR program in the 185-page document.

The report was delivered to Gov. Matt Mead's office for his review.

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