Barresi vs. The Board of Education

"I answer to no one!"

“You have not been elected dictator by the people.” ~ Oklahoma Board of Education Member Tim Gilpin to State Superintendent Janet Barresi

On January 28th, newly elected State Superintendent Janet Barresi conducted her first meeting of the Board of Education. It did not go well. Within hours of the meeting’s adjournment, Barresi was holding a press conference flanked by the new Governor whining about the treatment she received. Later, both the Board and Barresi were demanding that the Attorney General investigate their counterpart. Now, the state legislature is moving to actually make Barresi dictator.

How did things go so bad, so quickly? Based on most media reports, one would think that it is because the Board made a pregnant woman cry. That did happen.

Jessica Russell, Barresi’s choice to be legislative liaison for the Department of Education, was brought before the Board for approval. With a baby due in April, Board member Herb Rozzell brought up that if she took maternity leave (afforded up to twelve weeks by the Family Medical Leave Act) that she would be “worthless” to the Board since she would miss the entire legislative session. Not mentioned was that she was basically being hired for a “no show” job that Tony Soprano would think was a little too obvious.

What typically gets left out when this story has been disseminated (and it made national news) is that the Board did unanimously approve the hiring of Russell. Also left out is that when one listens to the audio it is clear that the line of questioning that Senator Clark Jolley called “archaic, misogynistic and deplorable” was made in a room full of laughter. Anyone who takes the time to actually investigate would know that Hazzell was at worst kidding on the square. Gilpin’s follow up suggestion of voting on a resolution that she not have the baby in April or May should have made that clear. Instead Barresi, sensing a political opportunity made sure to express shock and disgust for the official transcript.

The real issue is that Barresi does not like her boss. As a Republican, she wants to report to the current Governor, not as the state Constitution requires, a Board filled with appointees of the last Governor. From the beginning, she has made every effort to undermine the Board’s authority. For instance, the Board’s duties include making hires for the operation of the Department of Education. Barresi has been paying for the people she wants and Board might or might not have been willing to hire by paying them with outside funds. This is a problem. While it is nice to find non-taxpayer funding, in the end it creates a huge conflict of interest. Do these employees work for the state–as one would expect since they manage state employees–or do they work for Communities Foundation, the organization that is paying their salary? Then, do the employees taking orders from the people being paid by outside entities work in the best interest of the Communities Foundation or the voters?

Obviously, Barresi had to be creative because the Board found that the woman who is in charge of education for the state has little respect for what education signifies. They rejected three of her hires because they were found to be unqualified.

Likely the most stinging blow to Barresi was the rejection of her campaign manager as Chief of Staff. Not only did she want to install Jennifer Carter into a role that statutes require to have an advanced degree in education, Barresi intended to pay her more than the previous holder of that title who did meet the standard. One can debate whether the standards are too strict (Chief of Staff is a glorified administrator, not someone who teaches children), but the fact that Barresi attempted to hire Carter without first making an effort to change the job description meant that she was bound to clash. Attempting to hire Damon Gardenhire to be the fourth person with the title “Executive Director of Communications” and Jill Geiger, a low level employee at the Office of State Finance to be the chief financial officer overseeing the department’s $2.38 billion in appropriations (1/3 of the state budget) added more contention.

Of course, contention is what Barresi wanted. There was already discussion by the GOP controlled legislature of stripping the Board of all power. The heated meeting made it easier for that to happen. On Monday, the legislature’s education committee voted along party lines to allow a bill doing just that to go to the floor. With Republicans controlling both houses of the Legislature and the Executive branch, care to take any bets on if that will pass?

According to unapproved Communications Director Gardenhire, Barresi is “humbled” by the bill. My guess is that the correct term would be “emboldened.” The voters may not have intended to make her dictator, but that is exactly what she is about to become.