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Wyoming schools superintendent to return to work following judge's order on legislation

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Cindy Hill says she intends to be back on the job Monday morning running the Wyoming Department of Education following a judge's ruling that puts to rest her bitter legal battle to regain the office.

Hill held a news conference Friday in Cheyenne to respond to the order issued earlier in the day by Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell.

The order codified a Wyoming Supreme Court finding that the bulk of a state law that stripped most duties from the state superintendent of public instruction was unconstitutional. Lawmakers approved the law last year.

"Today we close a most interesting chapter in Wyoming history," Hill said. She and other state officials agree that Campbell's order allows her to return to work as head of the Education Department without further delay.

"As we turn to this next chapter, I recognize there is much work to be done," Hill said. "And I'm confident that the staff at the Wyoming Department of Education is up to the task."

The overwhelmingly Republican Legislature acted last year to strip the superintendent's office of its powers following bitter disagreements between some senior lawmakers and Hill, herself a Republican, over whether she was following legislative directives. Many lawmakers have said they've been dissatisfied that student test scores and other measures haven't reflected Wyoming's heavy spending on K-12 education.

Hill said she received calls from some legislators Friday. "I have a lot of support from the Legislature," she said, adding some lawmakers have told her they felt they were misled before they voted for the bill stripping powers from her office.

An independent audit released last month found questionable management practices in the Education Department when it was under Hill's control.

Without naming any individual, the audit blamed "management override" of internal financial controls and recommended further review by the state attorney general and the U.S. Education Department.

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael declined to comment Friday on whether his office was following up on the audit recommendations.

PHOTO: Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill speaks Friday April 18, 2014, about a court ruling that returns her to overseeing operations of the Wyoming Department of Education. Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell issued an order Friday codifying an earlier finding by the Wyoming Supreme Court. The high court had ruled that the bulk of a state law that passed last year stripping most duties from the state superintendent of public instruction was unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Ben Neary)
Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill speaks Friday April 18, 2014, about a court ruling that returns her to overseeing operations of the Wyoming Department of Education. Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell issued an order Friday codifying an earlier finding by the Wyoming Supreme Court. The high court had ruled that the bulk of a state law that passed last year stripping most duties from the state superintendent of public instruction was unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Ben Neary)

Campbell's order upheld five minor portions of the law as constitutional. Hill last week refused an offer from Michael to limit the lawsuit to those five points while allowing Hill to return to work.

On Friday, Hill said she and other plaintiffs won't appeal Campbell's findings. The judge upheld the following parts of the law:

— A requirement that the superintendent report on the status of all public schools by Oct. 15 of each year.

— A requirement that the superintendent identify professional-development needs for Wyoming schools and a plan to address those needs.

— Delete a requirement that the State Board of Education provide paid Education Department staff to help county officials who work on school district boundaries.

— A change in how members are appointed to the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board.

— Repeal the Department of Education's authorization to employ an attorney independent of the attorney general's office.

Michael said his office had argued that all five points were valid and should remain law. "We felt like we were vindicated on those five points, that that was all correct legally," he said.

Tempers have been raw between Hill, who's seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination this year, and Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican seeking re-election. Hill has sued Mead seeking large numbers of public records and has accused his administration of trying to block her return to the Education Department.

District Judge Peter Arnold recently ruled against Hill in her records lawsuit, stating public officials cannot use the Wyoming Public Records Act to get internal documents from other government agencies. They must instead make such requests as a private individual, he said.

Mead issued a statement Friday saying the state had requested a speedy resolution to the lawsuit in Campbell's court to implement the Supreme Court decision as quickly as possible.

"The superintendent had the opportunity to assume leadership of the Wyoming Department of Education for several weeks while reserving all her arguments," Mead said. "She refused to return. I am pleased the court has issued an order that brings finality to this matter."

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