Watchdog reporter describes ‘war’ at Education Board meeting

Peter J. Rudy, editor of Oklahoma, has filed a news story sketching contentious exchanges that occurred at today’s meeting of the Oklahoma state Board of Education.

Rudy’s first wave of notes from the meeting follows:

“In State Superintendent Janet Barresi’s first Board of Education meeting, a power struggle was evident from the start.  Board member Tim Gilpin pulled item from consent document dealing with five employees that the Superintendent wanted to hire. First up, he forced a motion to question Jennifer Carter, Barresi’s campaign manager and Chief of Staff nominee.

“Here’s an example of the exchange:

“Gilpin: What has your job been?

“Carter: I office down the hall and do what the superintendent has asked me to do.

“Gilpin: “Have you instructed the employees to answer to you?”

“Carter: I’ve done what the Superintendent has asked.

“Gilpin: What have you asked employees to do?

“Carter: A lot of things.

“Gilpin: Have you asked employees to remove job postings?

“Carter: Yes, because the Supt. asked me to.

“Gilpin: Superintendent, have you asked for job postings to be removed?

“Barresi: Yes, because until reorganization is complete, doesn’t make sense to have them.  Plus, with budget situation, it’s important to set example.

“Gilpin: are you familiar with board’s powers and responsibilities regarding hiring and firing? I’ve asked you to not put people in place without board approval.

“This led to discussions, often heated, about the legality of having workers like Carter and Communications Director Damon Gardenhire working in state offices, telling state workers what to do when they are paid by private funds and haven’t been approved by the board.  Barresi says past precedent has often had workers on the job before board approval and sometimes without ever getting board approval.

“In the end, the board rejected the hirings of Gardenhire and Carter along with Barresi’s choice for Finance Director.  An administrative assistant and legislative analyst/liaison were approved.”

When the board meeting recessed briefly at midday, Rudy filed this brief report:

“An already contentious State Board of Education meeting got more heated after a comment by board member, and former State Senator, Herb Rozell made a comment several women in the audience felt was sexist.

“After approving the hire of Jessica Russell as legislative analyst and liaison, who is pregnant and due in April, Senator Rozell made the comment that “if she has the baby and is gone for six weeks in May, she’s useless to us.”  May is the last month of session when a lot of activity happens at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Barresi requested that the comment be stricken.  Russell reportedly left the room in tears.  Even though a short recess was called, Senator Rozell has not yet apologized to Russell for the comment.

In response to the turmoil, Andrew Spiropoulos, Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, issued this following statement:

“The actions taken by the State Board of Education today—not allowing the newly elected superintendent to hire her own staff—are a perfect illustration of dysfunction in state government. It’s time for the state Legislature to reform the state Board of Education.

“Though the state constitution does require the establishment of a State Board of Education, it explicitly states that, in addition to its composition, the board’s “powers and duties shall be prescribed by law.” The Legislature, therefore, can restrict or even take away the board’s managerial powers; at a minimum, the Legislature must ensure the superintendent possesses sufficient power to hire staff and manage the department as she sees fit. The Legislature can also reform the board by altering the length of its members’ terms and how they are appointed.

“The members of the board, except for the superintendent, are currently appointed by the governor and hold six-year terms. The Legislature could easily revise the law to require that the term of each incumbent member ends with the election of a new governor and that each new member is appointed by the new governor or, maybe better yet, by the superintendent. The larger point is that control of our public education system is the hands of the Legislature and governor—they should be held responsible for remedying the board’s unconscionable acts.

“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.”

Professor Spiropoulos is a widely-published author and teaches at the Oklahoma City University Law School.