By Patrick B. McGuigan
Thursday morning, July 7 a group dubbed Educators for Facts, Openness, Responsibility and Truth (EFFORT) plans to hold a demonstration against Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and recent spending decisions at the state Department of Education. The event is slotted, organizers say, for the Cox Convention Center.
Barresi’s allies have defended for setting priorities in a tough year for funding. Ire has focused, in some quarters, on the decision to leave up to local districts any stipends for National Board Certified teachers.
The lead spokesman for Superintendent Barresi rebuffed criticisms of his boss and of the state Board of Education, contending the governing body for public schools in Oklahoma faced “tough decisions” and made them within the law and under authority granted to the Department.
Communications Director Damon Gardenhire said, “There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on. We understand that those who are advocates of particular programs might not like particular decisions. With the cuts education has sustained, we know people will be upset no matter what we do. It is understandable that those with a stake in particular programs could be upset.”
He continued, “There was not much room for cuts that avoided upsetting someone. It would have taken $15 million [fully] to fund the [national] Board certified teachers. If you add all the numbers up, and look at school lunches and matching funds and so forth, there was not much money left. These were tough calls. The Superintendent had said she wanted to fund what most directly affected classroom performance.”
In an interview, Ginger Tinney of Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) expressed concern about agency priorities, including a boost to 3-year old early childhood education programs. That decision at June’s board meeting attracted immediate support from Pat Potts of Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEO).
Tinney, however took a critical stance. She added, “Another concern is the conflict of interest on the state Board of Education. Mr. Phil Lakin, who is executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and who is also a member of the Educare Board of Directors, will benefit from the $10,000,000 state allocation to Educare.
“In past years, the Educare allocation was matched by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Supt. Barresi’s budget does not mention any matching funds. However, regardless of the matching funds issue, the conflict of interest is clear.”
Also criticizing Barresi and the Board was state Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, a Democrat who said he was “extremely angry” at suggestions that school districts make up the $5,000 per teacher per year stipend for national board certified educators.
Dorman said, “Our school districts are strapped for dollars and they have consistently cut everywhere and anywhere they could, and they cannot afford to take on a responsibility which by law is one that the state has to provide. Barresi’s whole ‘let them eat cake’ attitude reveals her obliviousness to the very real plight of our school districts and public schools.”
Rep. Dorman also criticized the salary of some of the superintendent’s staff, cuts in reading programs, and other decisions. State Rep. Ed Cannaday of Porum also assailed the lack of funding for the national teacher certification stipends.
Gardenhire countered critics, saying the board and Barresi are required to provide funding to early childhood education. He pointed to provisions added to state law several years ago (Title 70, Chapter 1, Article Article X – School Population and Attendance, Section 10-105.4 – Early Childhood Pilot Program for At-Risk Children.)
That language provides, “The State Board of Education shall establish a pilot early childhood program to consist of private donations and state funds that will serve at-risk children in at least one urban area and one rural area of this state to be selected by the Board. The Board shall solicit applications from the private sector for the program and require applicants to match state funds on a two-to-one basis and commit a minimum investment of Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000.00) in the program.”
Concerning Lakin, Gardenhire demurred on concerns of a conflict of interest, saying that the explicit requirement to act (with the language “shall”) did not leave the Board and Barresi an option to avoid funding the program.
From the $401 million in school activities funds the board controlled for Fiscal Year 2012, Barresi says the approach taken reflects “a new normal” of tight budgeting. Despite later criticisms, among initial positive comments were those of rural Republicans, who cheered retention of financing for Agriculture Education.
In FY 2011, $419,789,004.80 was available in activities funds. For this year, the total was $401,224,755.