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We Trust Parents, Except When We Don’t

June 8, 2013

Today’s Tulsa World explains that the SDE’s probe into the tomfoolery in Jenks regarding parents opting out of field tests (tests that do not count for students or schools) has turned up nothing of substance. Rather, it began when a parent, local PTA president Deedra Barnes, decided that she didn’t think Jenks students needed to be “unpaid subjects by CTB/McGraw-Hill.”

When we first learned about the investigation, we did not know much about its origins. Now we do:

Under the state’s Open Records Act, the World obtained numerous documents from the Oklahoma State Department of Education this week about the opt-out event, including the Jenks internal investigative report and emails among state officials about the issue.

Documents show Barresi requested in a telephone conversation April 5 that Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman initiate an internal investigation into the opt-out movement.

In an email to Barresi later that day, Lehman reiterated that Jenks would comply with all the state’s requests. He also wrote that after speaking with Barnes and Jenks Middle School Principal Rob Miller, “it is clear to me that Ms. Barnes and other parents made the determination to pen the letter and take the action which resulted in Wednesday’s ‘opting out’ activity on the part of many Jenks parents and students.”

That evening, Barresi wrote an email to Chief of Staff Joel Robison, Assistant State Superintendent Maridyth McBee and the department’s general counsel, Kim Richey, about Lehman’s email.

“I am not buying the explanation that seems to insulate Miller and others. There had to be a great deal of conversation between Rob and the parents. Clearly this was orchestrated,” Barresi wrote.

When you begin an investigation with the outcome already in mind, you preclude yourself from other possibilities. Barresi believed that the parental opt-out movement was “orchestrated” by the principal. The SDE had even begun to explore ways to punish school officials who might have been involved:

On April 11, Richey sent Barresi an email suggesting that the department submit an open records request to Jenks for any communication among Miller, Lehman and Barnes about testing.

“While I’m sure the district will conduct a thorough investigation, I would like to see directly what conversation occurred prior to Mr. Miller’s actions,” Richey wrote.

She noted that the department shouldn’t respond to Lehman’s email with details of their concerns so he wouldn’t know what legal basis “we may use to take action later down the road.”

Any case to be made and disciplinary action should come before the state Board of Education, Richey wrote, adding that she was researching the basis for possible license revocations for employees found to be involved.

You read that correctly. The SDE was exploring the legality of revoking teaching licenses in the event that any school staff were found to have been involved in the movement. Never mind that nothing about opting out of field tests is illegal or unethical. They were simply saying they didn’t want to play. Rather than accepting that parents get sick of the testing nonsense, Barresi and company assumed something nefarious and looked for people to punish.

The funny thing to me is that most of the time, Barresi tells schools to trust parents.

So what did the investigation find? Nothing. And of course finding nothing means nothing. There can be conspiracies without paper trails. In fact those are the best kind. Especially when you’re suffering from paranoid delusions.

And what did the SDE report to the public about the outcome of the investigation? Nothing. Because the only thing that the people in charge there hate worse than not getting their way all the time is being proven wrong. Technically, this is not a closed case.

This is nothing but a vendetta (and if an investigation of the SDE proved differently…well, I just wouldn’t believe it). The SDE gets more push back on its initiatives from Jenks than from any other school district in the state. For a leader who says local control and parental choice are important, Barresi sure isn’t showing it here.

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