In the wake of superintendent scrap, a look at the position’s powers

Following a process challenged by legal maneuverings and allegations of unconstitutionality, Gov. Mark Gordon appointed Brian Schroeder as the state’s superintendent of public instruction on Thursday. Schroeder will hold the office, recently vacated by Jillian Balow, until 2023, when voters will once again have the chance to elect someone to the position.

All of the contention and rhetoric surrounding the replacement of Balow begs the question: Just how much political clout does Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction — one of five statewide elected positions, along with governor, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state — actually possess?

An examination of the job description turns up a wide range of duties — from establishing guidelines for the disposal of toxic chemicals to tracking special education programs.

“The state superintendent really has the ability to impact everything from the day-to-day operations of the departments, to policy, to the management of revenue for the future of school children,” Brian Farmer, director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said. 

But influence is the superintendent’s greatest power, according to Farmer: He or she can either help Wyoming’s various education agencies run smoothly, or foster an environment of conflict. 

Kari Eakins became  interim superintendent when Balow resigned on Jan. 16 to take a similar position in Virginia, where the role is always appointed. Not all states elect their superintendent, Eakins said, but having the people choose the head of the education department forces the superintendent to be accountable to the voters, something Eakins sees as a strength.

A large part of the Wyoming superintendent’s time is spent driving across the state visiting school districts. In her brief stint as interim superintendent, Eakins drove from her home in Cheyenne to Casper for a state board meeting and then two days later to Lander for a principal’s conference. 

“It is a lot of miles. But you’re responsible to the people, so you got to get out there and meet with them,” Eakins said.

When explaining the superintendent job, Eakins frequently uses the metaphor of an octopus on roller skates. “There’s a lot of different arms, there’s a lot of action, but if you don’t have that unified vision, you’re not going to be able to get to where you want to go,” she said. 

There isn’t much the holder of the position can do without relying on others, she said, and when making many decisions the superintendent must consult with either the governor, state board of education or legislature. For example, he or she can appoint members to the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board, but it’s a power shared with the governor. 

The superintendent can “kind of guide policy and support districts,” Farmer said. “If a superintendent chooses not to engage in that role, if they’re just going to be entirely compliance oriented, that will lead to a negative culture within the department.” Districts could view the superintendent as a bureaucratic stumbling block rather than as a partner, he said. 

Aside from helming the Department of Education, the superintendent of public instruction also sits on the State Board of Land Commissioners, the State Board of Education, the State Loan and Investment Board and the State Building Commission. The State Board of Land Commissioners manages state trust lands, which must be used to maximize revenue to support schools. 

The superintendent is also a non-voting member on the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees, the Wyoming Community College Commission and the School Facilities Commission. 

The office of superintendent of public instruction has a history of controversy in Wyoming. In 2013 the legislature tried to strip former superintendent Cindy Hill of her powers after Hill was accused of misappropriating federal education funds, creating a toxic work environment and sexual harassment. 

The legislature passed Senate File 104 in an attempt to strip Hill of many duties and transfer them to an appointed director. The state’s Supreme Court ultimately deemed the move unconstitutional.

Marti Halverson, one of the finalists for the position and a former Wyoming representative, noted in her cover letter that she voted against Senate File 104 because she believed it to be unconstitutional. 

“When an individual has been challenging, the Legislature has responded to that by limiting the power of the state superintendent,” Farmer said. “But when the individual that’s held the office has shown a partnership, then the Legislature has been willing to allow them to exercise authority.”

On Jan. 22 the Wyoming GOP selected three candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. The applicants included: 

  • Schroeder, head of Veritas Academy, a private Christian school in Cody whose mission statement is “to assist each student in developing a Biblical world view by acknowledging that God is the Author of all knowledge and wisdom.” Schroeder majored in theology and speech and pastoral studies and holds a master’s in counseling. He moved to Wyoming in 2020, according to the resume submitted for the position. In his cover letter, he wrote the “local American schoolhouse is uniquely poised to be both an extension of and support for the American home as well as an incubator for and bridge to American society.” In a column, he wrote the U.S. has become divided due to multiculturalism and “it’s (sic) latest offspring, Critical Race Theory.” Schroeder did not respond to multiple interview requests. 
  • Marti Halverson, a former Republican Wyoming representative who noted in her application that she is “not an ‘educator.” Originally Halverson “did not consider running,” she told WyoFile. “But because I am known in Republican circles around the state for my conservative approach to policy, many people called and encouraged me to run.” Statewide test scores were a top area of concern for her, she said, noting “there’s something wrong there.”
  • Thomas Kelly, chair of the political and military science department at the American Military University, a for-profit online university that reached a settlement with the state of Massuchesetts in 2018 for engaging in “predatory enrollment tactics.” Kelly said Republicans in the Sheridan area asked him to run, but because he is relatively new to the state he was an unknown entity to the Central Committee. “In general, I would like to be able to be remembered as the person who was able to keep the Wyoming schools on secure financial footing, without sticking it to the taxpayers,” he said.

Gov. Mark Gordon interviewed the three candidates Tuesday. The appointment process was disrupted by a legal challenge, however. A lawsuit filed that day by 16 plaintiffs from various political backgrounds alleged the process used by the GOP Central Committee to choose the three candidates was unconstitutional. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the process of apportioning three votes to each county violated the federal and state constitution rule of “one person-one vote.” U.S. District Court Judge Skavdahl ordered the governor to halt his final decision for state superintendent until Thursday at noon, but ultimately denied the motion.

In the Thursday press release announcing Schroeder’s appointment, Gordon said “Brian demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that parents are intricately involved in their children’s education, just as it should be.”

After his interview, Kelly said the governor asked how he’d like to be remembered as superintendent, and he felt that Gordon was interested in a candidate who wasn’t using the position as a stepping stone to a higher office, a sentiment he agreed with. Halverson wouldn’t discuss the specifics of her meeting, but said, “my interview with the governor was frank and friendly.”