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Power Struggle at State Education Department (Jan 27, 2011)

The long-dormant power of the state Board of Education erupted Thursday as board members exerted their statutory control over Oklahoma’s education system, despite the protests of new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

The board challenged several of Barresi’s requests for the hiring of key staff members as state employees. Two of the people Barresi wants to hire are Jennifer Carter as chief of staff and Damon Gardenhire as communications director.

They are both already working at the state Department of Education, but are being paid with private money. Carter was also Barresi’s campaign manager.

It didn’t take long for what is usually a routine approval of staff hiring by the state education board to become hostile and chaotic.

State board member Tim Gilpin of Tulsa led the charge against Barresi. From early in the meeting, the legitimacy of the new superintendent’s role in determining education policy was challenged.

Gilpin and other board members repeatedly asked Barresi why her office failed to respond to their requests on staffing and re-organization plans the new superintendent has said she wants to implement in the state Education Department.

State board members accused the new superintendent of misusing funds in allowing private workers to oversee state employees. Rozell pointed out that Gardenhire is acting like a state employee in the education department even though is a privately paid worker.

Barresi said the salaries for Carter and Gardenhire, both north of $90,000 annually, are being paid by the non-profit organization, the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma.

The new superintendent told the board members Carter and Gardenhire will continue to work at the state Department of Education and be compensated with the private money, even though the board specifically voted not to allow their employment.

The education board members and state superintendent will get their next opportunity to decide who holds the power over Oklahoma’s public schools at a special meeting called by the board. A date for that meeting has not been set.

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