What began as a typical first meeting between the newly elected state schools superintendent and the Board of Education quickly degenerated into shouting accusations, political banter and the unsavory mockery of a pregnant employee who left the room in tears.
“This board has shown clearly that it is opposed to allowing me to carry out the position that I was elected to do by the people of Oklahoma,” state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said.
“The pretty speech is nice, but the politics are over,” board member Tim Gilpin quipped back. “You have not been elected dictator by the people.”
From there it only got worse.
Gilpin accused Barresi of “wreaking havoc” on the department.
Barresi told Gilpin he was “nearing the absurd.”
Both shouted over each other trying to get a word in edgewise and played the rules of open meetings to get the upper hand.
After the dust settled, three of Barresi's first five hires had been rejected, and the board voted to have the attorney general's office investigate the fact that Barresi used private funds to pay the first week's salaries of her new hires while they worked in the state department before board approval.
Gov. Mary Fallin had a news conference after the meeting calling the political skirmish deplorable.
“I am deeply disappointed by what has been reported to me about the conduct of some of the members of our state Board of Education, and by the lack of civility and, quite frankly, the lack of respect,” Fallin said, flanked by Barresi and other lawmakers. “To do things that would obstruct (Barresi) — and from what I've been told, in an obnoxious way — is not helpful to improving education in the state of Oklahoma.”
Fallin urged everyone to put aside the “political games” and “tone down the rhetoric” to focus on the mission at hand.
Reduced teacher bonuses
Lost in the flurry of politics was the news that there isn't enough money in the state budget this year to fully fund the $5,000 bonuses given annually to teachers who have National Board Certification.
The board voted to reduce the award this year to $3,900 for full-time teachers and prorate the amount awarded to part-time teachers based on the hours they work.
Barresi, a Republican who has opened two Oklahoma City charter schools, ran for election in November on a platform of education reform.
Two weeks ago, she took the oath of office and succeeded former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a Democrat who held the office for 20 consecutive years.
There were signs early that the transition would be bumpy.
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AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma Board of Education members
Members of the state Board of Education are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The current members are:
• Sue Arnn, Ardmore, community volunteer, represents Fourth Congressional District; term ends April 2014.