Parting Shots (Part IV)
Over the past 20 hours, I’ve said my goodbyes. In Part I, I explained an emerging school funding crisis. In Part II, I discussed Janet Barresi using the state’s editorial pages in her waning weeks in office to play the misunderstood victim. In Part III, I wrote about Barresi’s defenders at the Oklahoman continuing to push a narrative that Oklahoma schools are failing using a metric that shows things got worse under her watch.
This, barring something completely unexpected, will be my final discussion of Superintendent Barresi. I’m sure her name will pop up in the future and I will discuss her as an ex-superintendent, but for now, we’re finished with each other. And we’ve had a good run.
[cue the sad music]
As you probably know by now, Barresi’s last week in office included a number of personnel decisions. Based on conversations with sources at the SDE and confirmations in the print media, the moves included new hires, promotions, job description changes (with the intent of excluding certain in-house applicants), and one last-minute dismissal. The Tulsa World called it a hiring spree:
All told, her new hires total about $653,000 in base salary costs, and the salary increases that accompanied promotions, not counting one executive’s unknown bump in pay, total $62,000.
On Monday alone, five new employees with salaries totaling $290,500 were hired. Among them is the executive director of the new Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, with a salary of $90,000.
On Wednesday, Michele Sprague was promoted to executive director of literacy and Kayla Hindman was promoted to director of early childhood education and elementary English language arts. Both received $5,000 raises.
On Friday, Todd Loftin was promoted to assistant state superintendent for special education services with a salary of $80,000, but officials were unsure how much of a raise that salary amount represented because the decision came so late in the day.
I’d say that constitutes a spree. So much for fiscal conservatives, right? Maybe this is an appropriate way for Barresi to leave office. After all, her first days were marred by hires that the attorney general ruled illegal after the State Board of Education rejected them. Congratulations, new people! And enjoy those well-placed targets on your backs!
Questioned about the new hires, Barresi defended herself, in her typical, defiant fashion:
“It is my right as superintendent of public instruction to make personnel decisions, and the literacy position is critical for this state.”
I suppose that’s true. In theory, she could go to work tomorrow and fire and promote more people if she chose to – until 11:59, at least. In related news, tomorrow’s new state superintendent was not impressed.
Asked to comment on the hirings and inter-departmental musical chairs, Hofmeister called the situation “disappointing.”
“Instability in any state agency is a hallmark of failed leadership. Future staff decisions will be made with careful consideration and respect for all involved,” she said.
“I look forward to joining the State Department of Education next week. I know there are hardworking people in the department and I look forward to getting to know them better. Plans are underway to conduct a formal capacity review of the agency to ensure we have the right people in the right places to best serve our state.
“My focus remains the schoolchildren of Oklahoma. Monday marks a new day for education.”
I suppose the easiest thing for Hofmeister to do after her open house tomorrow afternoon would be to go in and click the undo button. In a few cases, I wish that she would. I won’t single anybody out, but several of these are horrible choices. At a minimum, Hofmeister should review all personnel moves that have come in the last 30 days or so.
It’s very tempting for me to give a list of people that I think Hofmeister should rid the SDE of as soon as possible. I would assume that of the 10,000 people who answered her survey, many did precisely that. I mentioned specific names of SDE staff whom I find helpful. I mentioned different offices that seemed to be in disarray overall.
Still, if Barresi promoted you during the last week of her tenure because you’ve been a stalwart of her administration and a good steward of her vision for public education in this state, there’s a good chance that you’re pretty out of sync with the voters who summarily dismissed her in June. The last week was nothing more than a last-ditch attempt to preserve what she has tried to do – in other words, she’s still trying to tell the voters that they’re wrong.
One reason, as Brett Dickerson wrote today, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up for massive changes overnight, is that there is a tremendous amount of damage to undo. At the beginning of her term, Barresi fired most of the people with any institutional knowledge. As a result, school districts and parents could not get quick answers to our important questions. One of Hofmeister’s first tasks will be to re-populate the staff at the SDE with competent, knowledgeable, helpful people. To do this, she will also have to clear some room.
It’s going to be bumpy for quite a while. With a new testing company in place, standards to write, TLE to reform, Congressional and Presidential whims to absorb, and ongoing questions about adequacy and equity in school funding in Oklahoma, Hofmeister faces, as Barresi stated in one of her editorials last week, a steep learning curve. The difference this time will be that she’s going to be listening to educators and parents in this state rather than following Florida and Indiana everywhere they go.
Just like that, I’m finished writing about Superintendent Janet Costello Barresi. Where has the time gone? When will we see her again? And who really cares?
Let’s just move forward, diligently. Monday is a new day for public education, indeed.