The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

January 27, 2011

Oklahoma education board meeting turns testy, loud

ENID — Oklahoma school Superintendent Janet Barresi’s first meeting with the state Board of Education turned testy Thursday, with one board member calling her a “dictator” and another telling a pregnant administrator she would be “worthless” as a legislative liaison if she took maternity leave when lawmakers are in town this spring.

The panel also refused to hire three employees Barresi requested: chief of staff Jennifer Carter, communications director Damon Gardenhire and finance director Jill Geiger.

“I think it is an effort by the board to thwart my ability to run the state Department of Education,” Barresi said after the meeting. “It’s an effort to overthrow the will of the people of the state of Oklahoma.”

Enid resident Betsy Mabry, who is a member of the board, said Thursday’s clashes were unfortunate.

“It was really rough,” she said. “I almost can’t put it into words.”

She said some of the issues that came up in the meeting might have been the result of miscommunication between Barresi and board members beforehand.

Barresi, the director of Oklahoma’s 660,000-student public school system, won 56 percent of the vote in November’s statewide election. Board members said they wouldn’t hire part of Barresi’s chosen team because they perceived the three already had been giving orders since Barresi took office Jan. 10. Two other Barresi appointees were approved.

Board member Tim Gilpin, of Tulsa, asked Barresi not to put people in “a position of authority” prior to board approval and to not have them “wreaking havoc on the department.” In one of several loud exchanges, Gilpin referred to Barresi as a “dictator” when she reminded him she was elected by the people and that ”you were appointed by a governor who is no longer in office.“

“You, sir, are accountable to no one. I was elected to do that job and I will do that, I assure you,” she told Gilpin.

Mabry said she was willing to support Barresi as long as the actions Barresi takes are for the benefit of Oklahoma’s students.

“Transition is tough. Change is tough,” Mabry said. “Not all change equals improvement, but to have improvement you have to have change.”

Mabry has been on the board for three years and was appointed by former Gov. Brad Henry.

Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement accusing the board of “obstructionism and cheap political theatrics” and said later at a news conference Barresi had gathered a well-qualified team and the superintendent enjoyed the support of the administration and voters.

“To do things that would obstruct her from the ability to perform her job, and frankly, in an obnoxious way, is not helpful to improving education in the state of Oklahoma,” Fallin said.

Barresi and Fallin are Republicans. Henry, a Democrat, appointed Gilpin to the board.

After the board voted to approve Jessica Russell as the agency’s legislative liaison, former state senator Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, noted her pregnancy and questioned whether she would be at the Capitol in May at the height of the legislative session.

“If she has that baby in April and takes off six weeks, she’s worthless to us,” Rozell said.

Russell, whose baby is due in April, quickly left the room in tears. While there was some laughter in the room, Barresi told Rozell his remark was out of line before quickly calling for a 10-minute break.

“Your comment is inappropriate and not worthy of this board and this department,” she said.

After the meeting, the Rozell said he “probably said it wrong.”

“I didn’t mean to interfere. I was just hoping we could have her in April and May, because that’s when everything gets tied up,” he said.

Mabry said she thought Rozell and Gilpin were at times “out of line with their comments.”

Gilpin grilled Carter, Gardenhire and Geiger regarding their qualifications.

Gilpin was particularly harsh in questioning the credentials of Carter, who has a doctorate degree in law but not a master’s degree in education, which Gilpin said is required to be the Education Department’s chief of staff. At one point, he called Carter — who served as Barresi’s campaign director — a “political crony,” another comment that drew a sharp rebuke from Barresi.

Gilpin, Rozell and Gayle Miles-Scott, of Oklahoma City, also questioned whether it was legal for the agency to use private money to hire the three would-be appointees. Barresi said Carter and Gardenhire received paychecks from the private Communities Foundation of Oklahoma, which is funded through a separate entity, and that she was willing to provide a list of donors.

That didn’t satisfy Rozell.

“You tell me I am legal, accepting what has been done ... with private funds?” he said. Barresi said Carter, Gardenhire and Geiger acted “under my direction.”

Gilpin said he would ask the state Attorney General’s office if the way Carter and Gardenhire were paid was legal. The board voted 6-0 to make that request, even though it was not on the meeting’s posted agenda. Barresi questioned the legality of that vote, along with another vote that requested Carter leave the premises by 5 p.m. Friday.

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