Three of state Superintendent Janet Barresi’s hires rejected by the Oklahoma State Board of Education in a contentious January meeting will stay on board using private funds to pay their salaries.
Meanwhile, Barresi asked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to look into possible Open Meetings Act violations by the board, alleging the push-back appeared orchestrated and pre-planned. State law prohibits a quorum of a public body to discuss public business without a posted agenda.
Barresi said she consulted with Pruitt on Jan. 28 about the possible violation and is awaiting guidance from him on how to proceed.
The Jan. 27 Board of Education meeting quickly turned contentious when board members, appointed by the governor, pulled the confirmation of some of Barresi’s staff from the consent docket and began debating their qualifications and how they were being paid.
Although several hirings were approved by the board, three were not, including Jennifer Carter as chief of staff, Damon Gardenhire as communications director, and Jill Geiger as director of finance.
Board member Tim Gilpin, among other board members, said Carter did not possess the minimum qualifications for the post, and called her a political crony of Barresi’s.
“It wasn’t adult behavior that was going on at this meeting. It was a pretty unruly situation. I regret the employees I’ve hired had to go through that. It was all a political play to try and get control of the state Department of Education,” Barresi said. “The personal attacks, the tone of the meeting, that was very upsetting. Not to me, but the people who were put through this humiliation. I knew the meeting would be tough.”
Shortly after Barresi’s election, several of the board members had one-on-one interviews with the state superintendent-elect. However, both sides view the meetings differently.
Gilpin said that he had asked Barresi for her ideas on the department, education and information on her proposed new hires, but no information on the hires was provided, despite repeated requests for information.
Prior to the meeting, Gilpin said he asked Barresi to discuss the employment issues in executive session, but she refused. However, Barresi said that during the one-on-one meetings, Gilpin and other board members had problems with some of the staff and the fact that the names were made public.
“I got a clear indication and a direct indication from Mr. Gilpin and (former state Sen. Herb) Rozell that they had serious problems with my hires and they were angry I made those names public prior to their review,” Barresi said, adding that the board members told her to take six months to review the department’s organizational chart. “I knew I would have a great deal of resistance. We started looking at some remedies for that.”
Barresi said the staff members in question were paid for by a third party as a “stopgap measure.”
The third party in this case is 3R Initiative. Communities Foundation of Oklahoma, which funds a large number of education-related organizations in the state, administers the nonprofit’s funds.
The 3R Initiative was established on Dec. 27, 2010, according to Oklahoma Secretary of State records, and the registered agent of the corporation is Roger Stong, president of Crowe & Dunlevy law firm.
Donors to the group include Devon Energy, Walt Helmerich, the Inasmuch Foundation and Bank of Oklahoma.
At the January meeting, the board sought an AG opinion on whether it is acceptable to pay for Department of Education staff with private funds, although the original motion was ruled improper by Barresi since it was not on the agenda.
“The board discovered that Ms. Barresi already had these individuals in the department, exercising authority and giving orders,” Gilpin wrote in a letter to the Oklahoma Gazette. “And, they were being paid by outside private funds that they would not identify the source of or the amounts. Only under pressure from the board did Ms. Barresi tell us, and the public, what was going on.”
Barresi said the employees in question are highly qualified for their respective positions, including Carter, who was one of the focal points of contention.
“There is no one else I could imagine I would want for this job,” Barresi said.
It has not been determined whether the three people will be brought up for board approval again at the February meeting, Barresi said, and the initial denial of the employees went against board precedent.
“In the past five years, it was clearly a rubber-stamp-type philosophy,” Barresi said. “All of a sudden the board decides it wants to do this inquisition into my employees.”
On Feb. 7, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill that shifted power away from the board and to the state superintendent. The measure was authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman and Senate Education Chairman John Ford, and passed the committee with a vote of 12-5.