The state Senate's Education Committee approved a bill Monday to strip power from the Oklahoma state Board of Education and give the state schools superintendent complete control of the Department of Education.
In a straight-line party vote on the first day of Oklahoma's legislative session, the committee voted 12-5 in favor of the bill by Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville. The vote came after a contentious meeting last month during which the board, filled with appointees by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, rejected three people newly elected Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi had nominated for senior staff positions.
The bill would remove the board's governing responsibilities over the Education Department and essentially reduce it to an advisory panel. The superintendent would be able to set policies and make rules for the department's operation, as well as have control over “personnel and their appointment and salaries and other operations.”
The bill would give the board — a constitutional panel — “the responsibility to give advice and make recommendations to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction on all matters pertaining to the supervision of instruction in the public schools.”
Ford said Barresi was elected on a platform to reform the state's education system and said it was not wise to have a board that would keep her from doing so.
“What we're trying to do is to make sure the Board of Education is accountable to the citizens of Oklahoma,” Ford said.
Democrats, including Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre of Tulsa, criticized the bill as a “knee-jerk reaction” to what happened at the meeting. Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, called it “a power grab by those who are in power.”
Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, cited the Education Department's budget — $2.38 billion during the current fiscal year, about one-third of the overall state budget — as a reason not to give so much power to the superintendent.
“I really believe it removes a system of checks and balances,” said Paddack, who lost to Barresi in the race for the superintendent's post.
The bill takes into account the “will of the voters,” Ford said, and takes power from an unelected board.