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.
The board consists of six members who all were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
Under Garrett's administration, the board meetings were jovial occasions with award ceremonies for employees, boxed lunches and seldom disagreements. The board never pulled Garrett's hires from the consent agenda for discussion before approving them.
Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, who has served on several education committees since being elected in 2004 said the board in past years has been a “rubber stamp.”
That was not the case Thursday.
Gilpin began questioning Jennifer Carter, Barresi's campaign manager who was recommended for the vacant position of chief of staff.
“I will not support political patronage in this department. ... Here we sit today with you trying to put your political friend in a $96,000-a-year position,” Gilpin said.
He read the job description which required that the chief of staff have a master's degree in education.
Barresi responded that Carter's juris doctorate should suffice.
The board voted unanimously not to hire Carter.
Barresi told the board that for the past two weeks her transition team has been working at the state Education Department but were paid with private funds held by the nonprofit organization Communities Foundation of Oklahoma.
Gilpin moved to have the attorney general investigate that “improper” and “possibly illegal” action.
The board voted unanimously for the investigation, but it may not stand because it wasn't an item on the agenda.
Board member Betsy Mabry supported Barresi's hire of Damon Gardenhire for executive director of communications, but she was the only one.
Gilpin noted that there were already three people in the department serving under that title.
The board also rejected Barresi's hire of Jill Geiger as the new assistant superintendent of finance and in an extremely awkward sharing of the podium, had the current assistant superintendent in the position, Jack Herron, give his qualifications.
“I like Jack,” Gilpin said. “Maybe Ms. Gieger could be an assistant to him.”
The board did approve two of Barresi's hires: Jan Smith as an executive assistant and Jessica Russell as the legislative liaison.
But the tense meeting broke for a recess after Board member Herb Rozell's comment that Russell had better not have her baby in May or else she'd be “worthless” to the board.
Barresi stated after the meeting that her three rejected hires would continue to work in the department using private funds for salaries.
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.