Senate Education Committee votes to make Education accountable

Updated: On the first day in the first hours of the session, the Senate Education Committee has given approval to a bill to give the State Superintendent greater control over policy, while increasing accountability to the public.  Senate Bill 718 was approved by a vote of 12 to 5.  The measure was authored by Sen. President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman and Senate Education Chairman John Ford and understood as a direct and specific rebuke of “schoolyard bully” behavior by activist board members Herb Rozell and Tulsa Attorney Tim Gilpin, a former Tulsa County Democrat Party Chairman.

“This is about honoring the will of the people and who they choose to direct education policy in our state.  Every four years, the citizens decide who can best do that job,” Ford said.  “Senate Bill 718 will make sure our state superintendent can do the job she was elected to do.”

Bingman said the state superintendent should have the same statutory authority as other statewide elected officials to implement policy and shape the department’s direction.

“Oklahomans spoke loud and clear in November that they were tired of the status quo in education, and they supported Superintendent Janet Barresi’s desire to reform our public school system,” Bingman said.  “As their elected representatives, we have a responsibility to make sure their voice is heard and their will is honored.”

Rep. Jason Nelson weighed in as a leader of House reformers on education policy issues.  Nelson has strong ties to a number of Democrats in the Legislature, and was the leading advocate of one of the major education reform bills enacted in 2010.  In a statement sent to published on (click here for that previous story) Nelson said:

“I’ve listened to nearly two hours of a recording of yesterday’s state board of education meeting. I can only describe it as disturbing.

“I’m stunned by the board members’ appalling behavior at Dr. Janet Barresi’s first board meeting as our newly elected State Superintendent.  I’m not surprised by Dr. Barresi’s professionalism under fire.  It only serves to confirm she is the right person for this job.

Listening to the recording you hear a few members of the board attempt to provoke Dr. Barresi with constant harassment and interruptions over the course of five hours.  Clearly they had organized this effort before yesterday’s meeting in a pathetic attempt to embarrass Superintendent Barresi.  That plan backfired.  Two of the board members in particular played the classic school yard bully.

“I can’t help but wonder if other board members were embarrassed or even intimidated by the disgraceful actions of board members Tim Gilpin and Herb Rozell.  At one point a member of the board indicates that she supports approving the hiring of an individual recommended to the board by Dr. Barresi only to hear Mr. Gilpin overpower the conversation and blurt out a motion to the opposite effect.

“I hope the other board members will quickly clarify that they do not share or endorse Gilpin’s and Rozell’s complete lack of respect and civility.  It is important to know if the other board members believe the behavior exhibited by Mr. Gilpin and Mr. Rozell was appropriate and if they believe that these two men should continue serving on the board.  I hope their silence … is not their assent to the unacceptable behavior.”

In a follow-up call by Tulsa Today, Gilpin asserted that the Board is the controlling authority over public education in Oklahoma and questioned the qualifications of Superintendent Barresi’s choices for staff positions while asserting more qualified people were already in place within the Education Department.  

“The State Board of Education as it has since the beginning has control over the hiring, firing and control of the Department,” Gilpin said.

“I met with her in November and asked for who she wanted to put on as new hires and to give those resumes to the Board so we could start working on them.  She never responded.  I sent her a follow-up e-mail November 19th and she never responded.  I sent her an e-mail in December saying we need this information; what are your ideas on education, who do you want for your new hires, let’s see the resumes so the Board can start working.  Nothing came back.  I sent her another e-mail in early in January and nothing came back,” Gilpin said.

When asked why Oklahoma would elect a State Superintendent of Education if the Board of Education is in charge of the Department, Gilpin said, “The Board has been a check and balance system that the [Oklahoma] Constitution began.”

Gilpin said, “These people were not qualified or were in addition to people who were already there.  It is a fact that we had three people working in the communications department right now and this new Superintendent did not give us a reorganization plan so the person she wanted would be an additional $92,000 expense to the Department at a time we don’t have a lot of money.”

After law school, Gilpin worked for several Tulsa law firms then “proudly served Oklahoma as an Assistant Attorney General” before opening his own practice in Tulsa according to his biography posted online.

SB 718, co-authored by House Speaker Kris Steele, will next be heard by the full Senate.