State officials denounce Board of Education’s treatment of Barresi, staff

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 27-Jan-2011

A contentious meeting of the state Board of Education has triggered a wave of denunciations of two board members, with calls for one to resign. Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and Governor Mary Fallin each decried the conduct of the board meeting, in which members refused to approve Barresi’s hiring decisions.
In a press conference convened in the Blue Room of the state Capitol about one hour after the Board meeting ended, Governor Mary Fallin said she was “deeply disappointed about the conduct” of the Board. She said the Board had shown “lack of civility and unprofessional conduct” in treatment of new Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
She singled out former state Sen. Herb Rozell, a member of the board of education, for saying one of the new hires, a woman who is pregnant, would be “useless” in the job due to her condition.
Fallin said the remarks were “disgusting.” She recalled that when she first ran for the state House of Representatives, she was pregnant. She said, “Shame on him for making fun of a pregnant woman.”
Fallin observed, “We may have differences, a certain amount of respect is due to the superintendent, and to her staff.”
Barresi told reporters the meeting was “the ugliest episode” of its kind she had ever endured. She also pointed to Rozell’s remark as “deeply inappropriate” and “offensive.” Barresi said Rozell owed the woman “a public apology.”
Barresi said Board member Tim Gilpin had led “what amounted to an inquisition” in opposing her hiring decisions. She said, “I was elected to do a job, and unelected appointees seem determined to thwart the will of the people.” Gilpin and others have contended that Barresi’s chief of staff is unqualified for the position because she does not have a degree in education.
At one point in the discussion with the press, Barresi said Gilpin’s comments and manner were “rather histrionic” at times during their contentious session today.
Barresi noted that Jennifer Carter, her chief of staff, has a juris doctorate and is well qualified for the job. CapitolBeatOK asked if the superintendent had any sense or belief that a degree in education might be required to understand her instructions. Barresi replied, “No sir, I do not.”
Barresi told reporters: “I can tell you this: I have a duty to Oklahomans, who elected me. I am determined to do that. I am answerable to them.” 
Barresi’s staffers have been working without stay pay, and instead are compensated by a private foundation. She had hoped to change them to state employee status today (Thursday), a move the board effectively prevented.
Barresi is the only statewide elected official subject to the governance of a board. However, the requirements are statutory, not constitutional. Several leaders have expressed a determination to change the underlying statutes to allow the superintendent actually to govern her own agency, and those rumblings grew louder after today’s events.
The new superintendent challenged several decisions the Board has made in recent months, including one to withhold a deposit into the teacher’s retirement system. The board reversed themselves on that matter after an attorney general’s opinion.
One observer made a wry comment after today’s press conference:  “Members of the Board of Education seem to believe that David Boren is qualified to serve as president of the University of Oklahoma, and that former Governor Brad Henry is a serious candidate for the presidency at the University of Central Oklahoma – but that neither man is qualified to be Janet Barresi’s chief of staff.”
In her formal statement distributed to reporters in the Blue Room press conference, Fallin said:
 “The public indicated their support of Superintendent Barresi when they elected her to office. She should clearly be able to appoint her own senior staff, especially given that all of her intended hires are well-qualified. My goal as governor, and Janet Barresi’s goal as superintendent, is to improve our schools and help our children. I would hope the Board of Education would join us in that mission rather than engage in the kind of obstructionism and cheap political theatrics they pursued today.”
Late this afternoon, House Minority Leader Scott Inman defended the board.  In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK. Inman said:
“State law makes it clear that the Superintendent answers to the Board of Education, not the other way around. Superintendent Barresi continues to state that her position as an elected officer is more important than the Board of Education, and has attempted to thwart their authority.
“I commend the members of the Board of Education, who performed their duties according to state law.
“In addition, Superintendent Barresi flagrantly ignored Board rules that have been in place for over two decades as to the minimum qualifications of department employees.
“Instead of hiring employees who meet these qualifications, the Superintendent chose to reward her political friends whose backgrounds are in anything but education. The qualifications requiring a Master’s degree in Education as well as classroom experience exist to ensure the employees of the State Department of Education are truly qualified to serve the education needs of Oklahoma’s children.
“I’m disappointed that Republican leaders who campaigned on a platform of upholding the state’s Constitution and laws have decided to favor partisanship over following that rule of law.”
Earlier, just after the Blue Room press conference, Republican state Senators John Ford of Bartlesville and Clark Jolley of Edmond, called for former Sen. Rozell to resign from the Board are calling for a member of the State School Board to resign. The two had stood with the governor, Barresi and Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki during the encounter with the Capitol press corps. Also in attendance to support Barresi were state Reps. Corey Holland of Marlow and Charles Ortega of Altus.
Jolley, who served on the Senate Education Committee said he was appalled by reports Rozell’s remark the Barresi employee would be “useless” due to a pregnancy that is likely to end during the upcoming legislative session.
Jolley told reporters: “I thought it was archaic, misogynistic and deplorable.  I’m calling on him to publicly apologize to her and resign his position on the State Board.  In this day and age, to have that type of attitude about a woman’s ability to serve is offensive, discriminatory and just wrong.”
Ford represents Craig, Nowata and Washington counties in the upper chamber, and is charman of the Education Committee. He reflected:
“I am a father, a husband and a grandfather.  My wife and my daughter worked through pregnancies and they continued doing a tremendous job.  When my granddaughter enters the workforce, I want her to have the opportunities that every citizen in this state, every person in this nation should have — and they shouldn’t be held back because they’re pregnant.”
Jolley said after hearing of Rozell’s remarks, he regretted voting for Rozell’s confirmation to the Board.
While the board was still meeting, Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman and Speaker of the House Kris Steele both rallied aggressively to the new superintendent’s defense.
Professor Andrew Spiropoulos, who advocated for government reform and some changes in the state’s populist era constitution, was among the first to comment on today’s controversy. He reflected:
“Today’s actions are a perfect example of why our government is dysfunctional. We tie down our executive officials with a dizzying array of boards and commissions that act like leeches on our public circulatory system. Why? Because we are unwilling to trust either the individuals the people have chosen to do their jobs well, or to trust the people to throw these officials out if they have performed poorly.
“The architects of our national government long ago explained that the prerequisites for good government are energy, stability, and accountability. There is no doubt having our educational system run by Gov. Brad Henry’s people long after his departure makes for a more stable government. But a government that both lacks the power to reform itself and ignores the clear command of the people to change is no good at all.”