The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

April 16, 2014

Controversial schools chief attracts crowd of opponents

OKLAHOMA CITY — The field of candidates running for state school superintendent is unusually large — a sign of broad interest in what observers say is sure to be a referendum on the incumbent, Dr. Janet Barresi.

Six candidates filed nomination papers to run against Barresi, the Oklahoma City dentist who established the state’s first charter school before being elected superintendent of public instruction in 2010.

Two Republicans are contesting Barresi in the primary; four Democrats have filed, as well. All are calling for something new — a refrain that some credit to Barresi’s divisiveness.

“I think what it comes down to is she provokes strong feelings because she’s actually trying to do something,” said Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president of Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank.

“She’s not really a politician. She’s a reformer who had to be a politician to reform,” he said.

Dutcher said Barresi hasn’t always told people what they want to hear in her four-year term.

“She’s a dentist, so in her world, it’s not always comfortable to give an uncomfortable diagnosis,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear they’ve been doing a bad job. They don’t like the diagnosis the doctor has given and they certainly don’t like the prescription.”

Those running against Barresi on the Republican ticket are Brian Kelly, a teacher from Edmond, and Joy Hofmeister, president of JLH Resources Inc., of Tulsa, and a former member of the state Board of Education.

Democrats are Freda Deskin, of Edmond, who is founder of a charter school in Oklahoma City; John Cox, of Hulbert, superintendent of Peggs Public Schools; Jack Herron Jr., of Norman, who is government relations director for Professional Oklahoma Educators; and Ivan Holmes, a retired college professor from Oklahoma City.

Linda Hampton, president of Oklahoma Education Association, said interest in the race is high because Barresi has given the superintendent’s job a high profile by advocating for policies such as new reading standards that third-graders must pass to advance to fourth grade, as well as an A-to-F grading system for schools.

Hampton said the teacher’s organization is a nonprofit group and therefore doesn’t endorse in the race, but she said she hopes the election will bring change to a “ship that’s been headed in the wrong direction.” She said she’d like to see an end to the “divisiveness we have right now.”

“The actions have seemed to indicate more of a dictatorship than a partnership,” she said. Parents and teachers, she said, “want to be at the table, they don’t want to be on the menu.”

Hampton said her group will watch the race closely and plans a “very active” role in getting people to the polls. The group has launched an initiative, “Why June Matters,” to encourage people to vote in the June 24 primary election.

“We are definitely interested in this race and think it’s very, very important for the future of public education,” she said.

Robyn Matthews, Barresi’s campaign manager, acknowledged divisiveness but said Barresi has implemented data-based reforms that are not welcomed by unions or administrators “who would prefer to simply spend more money without any expectation of improved student results.”

Matthews said Barresi is committed to ensuring youth can read by third grade, and that high school diplomas signify that a student is ready for a career or college.

“Education is too important to play games or beat around the bush,” she said. “We owe it to our children to confront issues head on, and Janet is the only person in this race tough enough to get this done.”

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