New Oklahoma Superintendent's First Board Meeting Erupts In Fireworks

Thursday, January 27th 2011, 11:14 am
By: News On 6

Ashli Sims and,

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There were fireworks at the new state superintendent's first board of education meeting Thursday. One board member called Barresi a "dictator." Another employee was called "worthless."

Now, Barresi's new administration may be stymied, before it can even get started. The state Board of Education rejected three members of Janet Barresi's senior staff. It was a move the superintendent's spokesperson called unprecedented.

Only on the job for two and a half weeks, and it seems Janet Barresi's honeymoon is over. Her first meeting was contentious: names were called, tempers ran high, and three staff members were told they couldn't take their jobs.

The board met Thursday and refused Barresi's request to hire Jennifer Carter as her chief of staff, Damon Gardenhire as communications director and Jill Geiger as director of finance.

Board members expressed concerns that the three had been giving directions to Department of Education employees since Barresi took office on January 10, 2011.

Damon Gardenhire, who has been acting as Barresi's chief spokesperson but was rejected by the board today, says this is unusual.

He says in the last five years, nearly 90 percent of new hires at the state Department of Education never went before the board or were simply rubber stamped. Board members expressed concern about these staff members' qualifications.

Board member Tim Gilpin questioned Superintendent Barresi about her chief of staff, saying she didn't meet the minimum requirements yet her salary would be higher than her predecessor.

Tim Gilpin, Board Member: "Ms. Barresi, was Ms. Carter your campaign manager?
Janet Barresi, State Superintendent: "Yes."
Tim Gilpin, Board Member: "And I see..."
Janet Barresi, State Superintendent: "And she was excellent too."
Tim Gilpin, Board Member: "I'm sure she was. But that does not qualify her for a professional education position just because she's your political cronie."

Listen To The Board Meeting Online

Board members did approve the hiring of two other employees.

Board member Tim Gilpin of Tulsa and Barresi had several loud exchanges and it was Gilpin who referred to Barresi as a dictator. 

Tim Gilpin, Board Member: "I'm sorry ma'am you are not the dictator! We are governed by laws and rules."
Janet Barresi, State Superintendent: "I'm not being the dictator. I am trying to restore order to these proceedings."

But it was a comment by retired State Senator Herb Rozell that stoked the firestorm.

Senator Herb Rozell: "If she has that child in April and takes off six weeks she's worthless to us."
Janet Barresi, State Superintendent: "Sir, that is highly - highly inappropriate. (muffled discussion and laughter). Your comment is inappropriate."

Rozell was referring to a pregnant woman who would be acting as the legislative liaison. He was concerned she might be on maternity leave, during the busiest time at the legislature.

She ended up with the job.

Despite laughter heard at the meeting, several state leaders felt it was no joking matter.

"Senator Rozell's comments are deplorable," said Senator Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. "They should not be tolerated by any of us."

Former State Senator Herb Rozell talked with News 9's Robin Marsh Friday morning.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin issued a statement Thursday concerning the State Board of Education at their first meeting with new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.  

"The public indicated their support of Superintendent Barresi when they elected her to office. She should clearly be able to appoint her own senior staff, especially given that all of her intended hires are well-qualified. My goal as governor, and Janet Barresi's goal as superintendent, is to improve our schools and help our children. I would hope the Board of Education would join us in that mission rather than engage in the kind of obstructionism and cheap political theatrics they pursued today."

A former Oklahoma state senator who is a member of the state Board of Education was criticized by new state school Superintendent Janet Barresi for a comment made to an expectant mother who was hired by the state Department of Education.

Barresi noted during Thursday's board meeting that new legislative liaison Jessica Russell is expecting to give birth in April. Rozell then asked if Russell planned to take maternity leave in May while the Legislature is in session -- then said "If she takes six weeks off in May, she's worthless to us."

Russell left the room and Barresi told Rozell the comment was "inappropriate" and unworthy of the board. Board member Tim Gilpin said he understood the comment to be "a joke." 

State House Speaker Kris Steele also issued a statement:

"I am very concerned by the State Board of Education's refusal to approve the hiring of top staff at the Department of Education. The individuals involved appear to be qualified and, on the surface, the board's action seems to be an effort to prevent the state superintendent from performing her job duties. Any action that impedes functional operation of the department potentially harms oversight of all school districts and the educational opportunities of Oklahoma children.  "The Board of Education should be focused on allowing Superintendent Barresi to perform the responsibilities associated with her role as State Superintendent."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.