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A Stern Rebuke

May 26, 2012

As many people did, I spent the last few days of the legislative session following the action in the House on Twitter where bloggers like Oklahoma Watchdog were giving a blow-by-blow rundown of the rush to sine die. That is why it surprised me when just minutes after the House passed SB 1535 to restore textbook funding to districts, the SDE sent out a communication thanking legislative leaders for the additional funds.

In her message, the state superintendent stated that “our goal should be to get dollars to the classroom, where funds can help students.” However, just one day before, she was more than happy to exploit a shortage in funding to take money from the textbook allocation and plug holes in her agency’s budget. So somewhere above getting dollars to the classroom, funding the state agency is a higher priority.

If that sounds harsh, just listen to the criticism she got from her own party. Early Friday, District 9 Rep. Marty Quinn stated as others were expressing frustration over the SDE’s intent to divert textbook funding that if it happened with the stopgap they were proposing, that he would vote against every education bill moving forward. District 2 Rep. John Bennett explained that a superintendent from his district had called him to explain that the SDE was keeping one-third of the textbook money. He then reminded the body that last year, the legislature trusted the SDE with a lump sum of funds and that the agency then failed to pay school employees’ flex benefits as legislated (requiring a supplemental appropriation this session). District 61 Rep. Gus Blackwell pointed out that the SDE has a history of ignoring legislative dictates. He followed up by threatening to deplete the agency’s budget if that happens again. District 64 Rep. Ann Coody mentioned that the Senate’s removal of line items in the SDE’s budget the last couple of years has led to unfunded mandates on schools.

Members of Superintendent Barresi’s own party were on the floor of the legislature saying that in a little over a year, she has already established a pattern of neglecting their will. Democrats like Joe Dorman, Ed Cannaday, Scott Inman, and Jerry McPeak were also vocal in their frustration over how she has performed. The fact that textbook funding was both restored and protected is huge. This means schools will not have their ability to pay for critical instructional materials depleted any further. It also means that the legislature will likely be more careful in the future when it tells the SDE what to do.

It should also be noted that Barresi’s thank you note specifically named “legislative leaders” like Clark Jolley, Jim Halligan, Earl Sears, and Lee Denney for their commitment to seek supplemental funding again early in the next legislative session. Jolley, it should be noted, spent most of yesterday tweeting about his accomplishments as he faces a tough primary challenge from his Tea Party opponent. Sears and Denney notably gave Barresi the benefit of the doubt during floor discussions.

Keep this in mind: members of the legislature represent multiple school districts – five on average. Each one has a superintendent. Each has board members elected by the same constituents who put them in their seats. Continued power grabs and blatant abuses of power by the SDE will further alienate Barresi from the people who elected her. She will continue to lose support in her own party as well. I wonder if she’ll heed the multiple warnings she received before adjournment.

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