Monday, December 5, 2011

Marveling At The Nuclear Fallout Of Partisan Politics

Last year (2010) was an exciting one in Oklahoma.

It was our first chance in TWENTY YEARS to elect a new State Superintendent of Public Instruction. For 20 years, incumbent Sandy Garrett (D) managed to keep her seat through the turmoil of House Bill 1017 and the rise and fall of no less than FIVE governors in a 3:2 ratio Democrat to Republican (counting the tail end of the Bellmon administration).

Unfortunately for Mrs. Garrett, during the fight over State Question 744 that year, a very large discrepancy was found between the scores of state administered tests and nationally administered tests, indicating that while Oklahoma's test scores had been reported as rising, the phenomenon was nearly solely due to a systematic dumbing down of the state tests by Garrett's office. Not surprisingly, and shortly afterward, Mrs. Garrett announced her retirement.

The 2010 general election gave Oklahoman's the chance to vote for either Susan Paddack (D), Janet Barresi (R) or Richard Cooper (I) as our new State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Janet Barresi won with 56% of the vote (pages 13, 14).

As Republicans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief, they also gave in to their audacity of hope that public education in Oklahoma would change. Truly change. After all, Dr. Barresi had billed herself as a 'reformer' during the campaign.

Immediately, voters were not disappointed. Changes came fast and furiously. Big changes.

During her first state school board meeting, a war of sorts broke out between school board members and incoming Superintendent Barresi regarding her choice of hires for her Chief of Staff and Communications Director positions. Conservative sympathies ran high for Dr. Barresi with even Stuart Jolly of Americans for Prosperity putting out a call for members to come to the second board meeting to show support for the embattled chief. After all, the Board of Education was made up of 5:1 Democrats with an incoming REPUBLICAN Superintendent.

Barresi commented to the Tulsa World,
"It was a well-planned and concerted effort to thwart" her work as superintendent.
Board member Tim Gilpin told a different story,
"The board found some improper things going on and shined a bright light on it. When politicians see that, they don't like it."
As Governor Fallin rebuked the board for their comments - even before the meeting was over - - Dr. Barresi continued to assert that, because she would be unable to get anything accomplished in such an atmosphere, she would need to have full control over hiring and firing. After all, that is how she had been able to accomplish the levels of success she had with her charter schools.

In fact, so incensed was she over the actions of the board, that she requested an opinion from Attorney General Scott Pruitt as to whether or not the meeting violated Open Meetings laws. (As an aside, AG Pruitt did make a pronouncement on the issue of her hires - concluding that the Chief of Staff and Communications Director were "usurpers" in their offices - an opinion which garnered little fanfare or news in the world of the WWF-like matches between Barresi and her board.)

Surfing the Republican tsunami of 2010 in the Oklahoma legislature, law makers ran in droves to Dr. Barresi's defense. Invariably,
House Bill 2139, crafted by Speaker of the House Kris Steele and Senator Brian Bingman, was created to assist the new Superintendent in her duties by providing her with a whole new slate of powers, including the hiring and firing of employees in the Department of Education.

Unfortunately, this move also brought dissension. Some felt it improper to do away with board control over hiring and firing decisions and that the action represented nothing more than partisan backlash. What in fact, then, was to be the role of the board? Why create laws based solely on politics? Putting such power in the hands of one elected official, Democrats countered, could produce results unintended in the end.

Still and all, though an emergency clause could not be managed (though Republican Steele forced a nearly unprecedented call of the House to try and get one), House Bill 2139 passed along party lines in both the Oklahoma House and Senate.

Governor Fallin signed it into law in April saying,
"In Oklahoma, the superintendent of public instruction is elected based upon the ideas and agenda they present to voters. And the superintendent, not the unelected Board of Education, should have the power to run the education department. This legislation will help to make the department more accountable and responsive to the will of the people."
Dr. Barresi said,
"This is allowing me to run the department," Barresi said. "I think the public will see absolutely no difference."
In May, though lack of passage of it's emergency clause meant HB 2139 would have to wait until August to become law, the state school board voted it become immediately effective. Only ONE member of the state board, Sue Arn voted no, explaining her belief that it was not a good idea to concentrate so much power in one individual. Phil Lakin, the newest Fallin-appointed member of the board (replacing Tim Gilpin) seconded the motion, just minutes after taking the oath of office from Barresi.

Following her humble acceptance of the keys to the employment security of the entire education department, Dr. Barresi set about to 'clean house', firing a number of employees in order to restore lagging morale in the agency caused by employment issues. Several of those released shared their concerns regarding lack of continuity of information within the department following the dismissals. Now-former board member Gayle Miles-Scott, had this to say,
“We've lost the whole top structure of people who have backgrounds in education and are well qualified, and they are being replaced by people who did well on the campaign.”
Jack Herron, the former assistant state superintendent for financial services, was told Dr. Barresi would have a place for him in her administration, only to be called before the board for his credentials soon after she received power of employment.

Since being gifted the keys to the kingdom by the Oklahoma legislature, ROPE has become obviously disenchanted with the manner in which Dr. Barresi is governing the SDE's affairs. Much of the concerns have arisen due to the great number of inconsistencies in Dr. Barresi's statements and actions.

For example:

Although we would all like to agree that public education should not be partisan in nature, the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Oklahoma is an elected position. Therefore, as with ANY elected position, the person who campaigns for the office necessarily MUST keep campaign promises and adhere to the spirit and ideals of the political party with which they identified during their campaign.

It doesn't appear Janet Barresi has done much of either since her inauguration. Yes, there are issues she said she would tackle during the campaign that she has attempted (trim the budget at the OSDE for example), yet the manner in which she has done that stymies me.

Worse yet, it appears that Dr. Barresi holds a certain amount of contempt for those she serves. This is not only obvious in her response to ROPE during the interim study on Common Core State Standards, but evident in numerous undocumented conversations and interactions with everyone from parents and taxpayers to legislators.

[I will never forget sitting in front of her desk (during an appointment scheduled by a legislator to discuss ROPE's bill to repeal the Common Core State Standards), having her gesture to her computer screen and say with great exasperation, "Why are you having these people email me? You are not even giving them correct information. They don't even know what they're talking about.]

It is never a happy situation to learn that your confidence in a public figure is misplaced - especially when you personally endorsed that candidate, but that is where many Oklahomans now find themselves.

I certainly hope and pray that Dr. Barresi will reflect on her missteps and realize a vision to correct them. Until then, the needle on my confidence meter points to NO. What about you?