Fireworks erupt at Barresi's first meeting with education board
BY KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011
1/28/11 at 5:44 AM
Listen to an excerpt from the state Board of Education meeting.
OKLAHOMA CITY - State Superintendent Janet Barresi's first state Board of Education meeting produced heated exchanges and name-calling Thursday and led to Gov. Mary Fallin calling the board's behavior "obnoxious."
One board member called a woman's appointment to the Department of Education "worthless" because she is pregnant.
The meeting became contentious when the board considered Barresi's choices for senior personnel - including her former campaign manager, Jennifer Carter, as her chief of staff and Damon Gardenhire as her communications manager.
The board voted against hiring Gardenhire after learning that his salary for the past two weeks has been paid by a nonprofit group in Oklahoma City, the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma.
Barresi said she had no role in getting the nonprofit group to pay Gardenhire's salary.
The Communities Foundation of Oklahoma administers scores of charitable funds around the state. Although most of them are relatively small, some are affiliated with influential families.
Former state Sen. Herb Rozell, a member of the board, asked, "You're telling me somebody outside this building signed a check for somebody who came in here and directed state employees?"
Another board member, Tim Gilpin, a Tulsa lawyer, said the situation was unlawful.
"You're asking us to legitimize what you've done and could get us all sued," said Gilpin, the former chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party.
Barresi, a Republican, said she was following procedures that were used by previous superintendents and elected officials.
"The accusations you are making are outrageous, Mr. Gilpin," she said.
When Barresi called for a vote on the personnel matters, Gilpin said she is not the "dictator."
Barresi responded that Gilpin's behavior was bordering on the "absurd."
The board voted to deny employment to Gardenhire, Carter and Jill Geiger, an employee in the state Office of Finance whom Barresi selected to be the director of finance at the Education Department.
The board did vote to hire Jessica Russell as a legislative liaison for the department, but not before Rozell questioned her about her pregnancy.
Barresi had asked that Russell be allowed to sit while she answered questions from the board because she is pregnant, with her due date in April.
Rozell asked Russell whether she planned to take maternity leave.
When she answered yes, he remarked, "If she takes six weeks off in May, then she's worthless to us."
Gasps were heard in the packed room, and then Gilpin said Rozell was simply joking.
Barresi said the comment was inappropriate. She later said that Russell left the room in tears.
State Sens. John Ford and Clark Jolley called for Rozell to resign from the board because of his comment.
Jolley, R-Edmond, said, "I thought it was archaic, misogynistic and deplorable."
State Rep. Scott Inman, the House Democratic leader, commended the board's action.
"State law makes it clear that the superintendent answers to the Board of Education, not the other way around," the Del City lawmaker said.
"Instead of hiring employees who meet these qualifications, the superintendent chose to reward her political friends whose backgrounds are in anything but education.''
Gilpin also bristled near the end of the meeting when Barresi said she wanted the board's communication to go through her office.
"So you're the filter?" he asked.
Barresi replied, "I think what he's asserting is that I am being duplicitous, and I think it's very unfair."
Fallin hastily called a news conference after the meeting to comment on board members who "bullied our new superintendent."
"As governor, I am deeply disappointed by what has been reported to me about the conduct of some of the board members," she said.
Fallin said she was especially bothered by the lack of civility during the meeting "and, frankly, I think, unprofessional conduct."
She said a few members conducted themselves in "an obnoxious way that is not helpful to improving the state of Oklahoma."
Fallin took particular offense to Rozell's remark about Russell, adding that she was pregnant when she first ran for the state Legislature in 1990.
"I certainly proved that women can be pregnant and get the job done," she said.
"Shame on them for making fun of a pregnant woman."
Fallin said Russell was owed a public apology. She called on the board to respect the new state superintendent, whom she noted was elected by the people of Oklahoma.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, also expressed concern about the board's "pattern of obstruction" over the past months.
He said in a statement, "The board's actions today stoop to the level of rank partisanship at a time when our state's education system can least afford these kinds of delays and games."
The board has six members - one Republican and five Democrats.
Barresi said at Fallin's news conference, "What we saw today was the worst political theater." She said Gilpin's behavior was "comical, farcical and deeply unprofessional."
"The children of Oklahoma don't have time for cheap stunts," Barresi said.
The superintendent said she intended to exercise her authority to keep the three employees rejected by the board and that the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma would continue to provide their salaries as a "gift to the state."
Barresi said the nonprofit group receives donations from Devon Energy Corp. and the Bank of Oklahoma.
During the board meeting, Barresi muttered under her breath, "He's on a witch hunt."
When asked about that remark at the news conference, she said, "I think it is an effort by the board to threaten my ability to run the Department of Education ... and to overthrow the will of the people of Oklahoma."
Education board's members
Members of the state Board of Education are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The current members are:
Original Print Headline: State school board meeting fiery
- Sue Arnn of Ardmore, community volunteer, represents Congressional District 4, term ends April 2014;
- Gail Foresee of Shawnee, teacher/counselor, represents Congressional District 5, term ends April 2016;
- Tim Gilpin of Tulsa, lawyer, represents Congressional District 1, term ends April 2011;
- Betsy Mabry of Enid, teacher, represents Congressional District 3, term ends April 2012;
- Gayle Miles-Scott of Oklahoma City, certified public accountant, at-large, term ends April 2015;
- Herb Rozell of Tahlequah, former state senator, represents Congressional District 2, term ends April 2014 The Oklahoman
Kim Archer 581-8315
State Superintendent Janet Barresi speaks Thursday at the first meeting of the state Board of Education since she assumed the office this month. Board members, including Tim Gilpin (right), and Barresi got into arguments. JIM BECKEL/ The Oklahoman