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State Superintendent Criticizes Decision By Four Tulsa-Area Schools To Sue Over House Bill 3393

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From left to right: Jenks Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman, Union Schools Superintendent Cathy Burden, Liberty Schools Superintendent Donna Campo and Broken Arrow Schools Superintenddent Jarod Mendenhall. From left to right: Jenks Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman, Union Schools Superintendent Cathy Burden, Liberty Schools Superintendent Donna Campo and Broken Arrow Schools Superintenddent Jarod Mendenhall.
New State Superintendent Janet Barresi New State Superintendent Janet Barresi
Dr. Cathy Burden, superintendent at Union Public Schools, speaks during Monday's news conference. Dr. Cathy Burden, superintendent at Union Public Schools, speaks during Monday's news conference.

Ashli Sims, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma --  Parents can currently apply for special needs scholarships at four school districts that previously rejected them.

But those districts' strong words and promise of litigation has Oklahoma's new state superintendent speaking out.  Superintendent Janet Barresi is a champion for school choice. But she thinks these school districts' choice to sue is a bad one.

Four superintendents from four school districts stood as a united front Monday. They claim the new special education scholarships are just vouchers with a new name.

"Using this as a foothold for vouchers, shame on them," said Dr. Jarod Mendenhall, Broken Arrow Schools Superintendent. "For using this as a foothold for getting a voucher system in this state."

The leaderships at Union, Broken Arrow, Jenks, and Liberty all rejected House Bill 3393.

1/24/2011 Related Story: Four Tulsa-Area Schools To Sue Attorney General Over Special Needs Funding Law

"We are charged with a duty of doing what is best for all students. And House Bill 3393 is not best for all students," Sharon Whelpley, a Broken Arrow School Board Member, said.

House Bill 3393 uses public dollars to pay for scholarships to private schools, like Tulsa's Town and Country, for special needs children.

These school leaders say that's a violation of state law. Under a threat from Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, all four districts agreed to comply, but they plan to sue to get the law thrown off the books.

"It's not the job of school boards or superintendents to decide how to interpret the law," said Janet Barresi, State School Superintendent. "Their job is to educate children."

New state superintendent Janet Barresi said she's alarmed by the school districts' actions.

"I'm concerned and disappointed that they have seen fit to use state tax dollars, dollars that are meant for the education of students in their school, and use them on this lawsuit," Barresi said.

"It's a shame that we have to spend any dollars out of our public funds to litigate something that should have never gotten this far," said Dr Cathy Burden, Union Schools Superintendent.

Barresi said public schools have used public money to contract with private schools under special circumstances, before House Bill 3393.

Instead of school districts having the power, she wants to give it to parents.

"But this is really about a parents right to choose what is appropriate for their child and not have it dictated to them," she said.

Opponents say it's only a choice for some. The scholarships are on a sliding scale. And even at the high-end, they may not cover the full tuition bill for some private schools.

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