To describe state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi as a lightning rod might be an understatement.
Democrats aren't the only ones taking verbal shots at the Republican superintendent.
This past week 20 Republican lawmakers announced their endorsements of Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, who has been exploring the idea of running for superintendent, but has not yet officially announced her candidacy.
“I think this is maybe unprecedented, but I think the nature of how she (Barresi) has ruled has brought this about,” said House Republican Whip Todd Thomsen, of Ada. “It's ‘do this or we'll just run right over you.'”
Sam Stone, Barresi's campaign manager, attributed the Republican lawmakers' endorsement of Barresi's opponent to Barresi's push for “meaningful reforms.”
Stone described the changes as “painful” but “also necessary.”
“I think if you look at all the reforms that are out there, they're difficult,” he said. “We know … that there are a lot of folks who would prefer to return to the status quo.”
One hot-button issue has been the Barresi administration's implementation of a system that grades schools on an A to F performance scale designed to give parents a better idea of the quality of schools their children attend.
Many schools fared poorly and there has been outcry from teachers and school administrators, as well as the state lawmakers who represent them.
However, Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, said her problems with Barresi have nothing to do with opposing reforms, since Denney authored the A-F grading scale bill and is a strong supporter of many of the other reform efforts.
“I work in education quite a bit and I just see a disconnect between the state Department of Education and our schools and our school leaders,” Denney said.
Thomsen said no single incident has triggered legislators' opposition to Barresi and that lawmakers who endorsed her opponent have differing opinions on changes Barresi has implemented.
“I think, more than anything, most everybody is opposed to the manner in which those reforms have been implemented by the state superintendent,” he said.
“She has consistently been unwilling to consider anything outside of absolutely what she wants,” Thomsen said. “I think that has created a negative environment, a lack of trust and I think that's reflected in the legislators who have stepped up and said, ‘We need a change. This isn't working.'”
“I think it's really a misunderstanding on the superintendent's part of her role,” Thomsen said. “She's not supposed to rule the legislators.”
State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, said he is looking for a candidate who will listen.
“I would say that probably the people that are on that list that support Joy have a variety of reasons, but I do think there is disappointment in both the direction the department is heading, the way it has handled issues and just the day-to-day functioning of the office of the agency itself,” Blackwell said.
State Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, said he's not happy with the amount of progress that has been made by Barresi, but said he may be expecting too much.
“I'm not sure if anybody can fix this thing,” he said.
Other Republican lawmakers identified by Hofmeister's campaign as having endorsed her included Sen. Patrick Anderson, of Enid; Rep. Don Armes, of Faxon; Sen. Don Barrington, of Lawton; Rep. Dennis Casey, of Morrison; Rep. David Derby, of Owasso; Rep. Dale DeWitt, of Braman; Sen. Eddie Fields, of Wynona; Sen. A.J. Griffin, of Guthrie; Rep. Katie Henke, of Tulsa; Rep. Arthur Hulbert, of Fort Gibson; Rep. Skye McNiel of Bristow; Rep. Glen Mulready, of Tulsa; Rep. Jadine Nollan, of Sand Springs; Rep. Charles Ortega, of Altus; Rep. Dustin Roberts, of Durant; and Sen. Frank Simpson, of Ardmore.
Stone said Barresi has her share of supporters within the Legislature, but the campaign isn't ready to release the names of her endorsers.