Oklahoma Education Board meeting turns contentious

The Oklahoma Board of Education sparred with new state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi over a number of hires, and board member Tim Gilpin accused Barresi of misusing funds. Gov. Mary Fallin called the board's actions “obstructionism and cheap political theatrics.”
BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Modified: January 28, 2011 at 11:54 am •  Published: January 28, 2011

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.



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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.

• Gail Foresee, Shawnee, teacher/counselor, represents Fifth Congressional District; term ends April 2016.

• Tim Gilpin, Tulsa, lawyer, represents First Congressional District; term ends April 2011.

• Betsy Mabry, Enid, teacher, represents Third Congressional District; term ends April 2012.

• Gayle Miles-Scott, Oklahoma City, certified public accountant, at-large; term ends April 2015.

• Herb Rozell, Tahlequah, former state senator, represents Second Congressional District; term ends April 2014.

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