Forget the Warm-and-Fuzzies on Oklahoma’s Board of Ed

By Sean Cavanagh — January 28, 2011 1 min read
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Everywhere these days, it seems that elected officials are promising to engage in a new, more civil and restrained form of political discourse.

Oklahoma evidently didn’t get the memo.

In an unusual, full-on public display of post-election hostility, members of the state’s board of education clashed with new state schools superintendent Janet Barresi over a number of her proposed hires. One board member’s comment about a pregnant new hire reportedly caused the woman to leave the board’s public meeting in tears.

The panel’s efforts to block Barresi’s moves drew an angry response from Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who accused the board of engaging in “cheap political theatrics.”

As reported in detail by the Oklahoman newspaper, board members and Barresi lobbed heated accusations to and fro and sought to use the rules of open meetings to get an upper hand. Board members questioned the qualifications of Barresi’s proposed appointments, blocked a few of them, and vowed to ask the state attorney general’s office investigate Barresi’s use of private funds to pay staffers who had not yet been approved by them.

Barresi, a Republican, took office in January, replacing former longtime schools chief Sandy Garrett, a Democrat. Board members were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and they’re apparently determined to intensely scrutinize Barresi’s work.

“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,” Barresi said at one point.

“You have not been elected dictator by the people,” retorted board member Tim Gilpin.

And on it went.

Finger-pointing and shouting matches at state and local government meetings are nothing new. I’ve witnessed quite a few in my day, and you may have, too. Are the feuding parties in these disputes ever able to reach a civil accord, or does peace break out only when the board’s composition changes?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.