By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - Thinly populated Wyoming is embroiled in debate over how to manage a school system that has achieved only moderate gains in test scores despite having one of the top five highest rates of education spending in the nation.
Anger over how the education system is managed in the staunchly conservative state has prompted the state legislature to strip the elected superintendent of schools of her main duties and cut her budget and staff while appointing an interim director of public education to serve in her stead.
The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cindy Hill, has countersued to block the changes, and last week Republican Governor Matt Mead announced an independent inquiry to look into employee concerns in the department.
The Wyoming debates on education mirror those nationally over standardized testing, legislative oversight, and how to best measure if progress is being made, with one key difference - the debate is raging mostly within the Republican Party.
The Republicans' conservative Tea Party faction, which normally targets excessive government spending as its signature issue, opposes transferring power from an elected official to a "government bureaucrat."
Some Wyoming lawmakers have complained that Hill has not provided necessary performance data required under federal funding requirements and has been slow to implement accountability measures they mandated.
Legislators have also complained Hill overstepped her powers when she spent $200,000 to create a new program for teacher training. Senate Education Committee Chair Hank Coe, a Republican, wants to make it tougher for teachers to gain tenure.
Bubbling under the surface is the fact that per-student spending in Wyoming has increased every year over the past decade, according to the National Education Association, rising from $9,246 in 2003 to $15,997 in 2011.
A 2012 Harvard University study that tracked state trends in student performance singled out Wyoming as one of three states with large spending increases that "had only marginal test-score gains to show for all that additional expenditure."
Elected in 2010 to a four-year term, Hill was moved from a prestigious office space to more modest accommodations nearby as a result of the bill, had her budget and staff cut sharply, and was left with mostly ceremonial duties.
Hill has since filed suit to block the changes and has vowed to run for governor in 2014.
The governor has said the inquiry "allows us to shine a light on the (state education) agency, which is something that the public has asked for and is entitled to" receive. The inquiry will focus on human resources, operations and budget issues, Mead's office said.
Some legislators said during debate on the bill to strip Hill of her powers that they had heard numerous complaints from department employees about how the agency was run under Hill.
Hill said the governor's inquiry was a distraction for the department, and the result of the "political and personal agendas" of Mead and a small group of legislators.
Some Wyoming residents have expressed strong disapproval of the move to strip Hill of her duties, calling the effort an end-run around the state constitution.
"If there was a prior concern about Cindy Hill's running of the education department, why didn't they convene a panel then?" said Bob Berry, a Tea Party member who unsuccessfully challenged Coe in last year's Republican primary. "It has all been innuendo, and this doesn't wash."
(This story is corrected by deleting reference to basement office in 10th paragraph)
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric Walsh)