Four candidates seek party nomination to be next Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction

The upcoming July 27 primary will whittle the five candidates for state superintendent of public instruction down to three people. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that the four primary candidates vying for the job can agree about something: The state Legislature is not helping. 

Elephant hunt
Donkey duel

Biographical sketches

Whether they cite bare-bones funding levels, out-of-touch priorities, cumbersome mandates on spending or either too-rigorous or not-rigorous-enough pass standards, the candidates at the very least offer different perceptions of how best to direct public education.

Elephant huntRepublicans Janet Barresi and Brian Kelly come from different professional backgrounds. Barresi has managed a dental practice and helped set up charter schools in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, and Kelly has collected numerous certifications, teaching various social studies and history subjects at the secondary and college levels. 

At a forum last month, Kelly stated he supports State Question 744, which directs the Legislature to fund public education at regional average levels. Barresi, no friend of the mandate in any form, said it would tie the hands of the Legislature.

The two also disagree about Oklahoma's public instruction's greatest hurdles.

Kelly said there was no question that funding was the state's biggest issue, but he didn't feel it was caused by current Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who is not seeking re-election.

"I'm a Republican, but I can remember being mad at teacher rallies," he said. "As a teacher, I didn't like the message (former Gov. Frank Keating) was sending to our profession."

Kelly said until funding is addressed by the state Legislature, instructional quality will suffer, although he doesn't differentiate between the types of under-funding he feels exists " whether it is per-pupil expenditures or teacher salaries. He also said the Oklahoma Lottery has done little to address to money problems.

Kelly said the position of state superintendent is a call of duty, and feels his across-the-board teaching credentials will serve him best.

"This is not my dream job; she's stated that it is her dream job," Kelly said, referring to Barresi. "I think this will be a tough job, and it's going to be very difficult."

 Barresi said low expectations are the state's biggest threat to education, and cites the fact that Harding Charter Preparatory High School is a Title I school (43 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch) yet has graduated a National Merit Scholarship finalist, an Academic All-Stater and five National Merit Commended Scholars in its seven years of existence. Harding's accomplishments are proof, she said, that kids can excel regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Barresi's involvement in charter schools began when she started looking for a middle school for her twin boys in 1996. They had been attending a reputable elementary school, but the middle school options in their district weren't so rosy.

A year later, with the help of volunteers, Independence Middle School was approved as an enterprise school and would later be the first charter school in the state.

Barresi credits the school's success with its parental involvement, autonomy and high standards " the same elements she believes can improve all public schools, not just charters. She said adequate funding is important, but if schools had more freedom as to how to spend the money they're given, it could be used to better effect.

Barresi noted how charter schools operate under additionally stringent accountability measures.  
"When you know that your school is about to be shut down, then it changes the way you make decisions," she said. "You don't worry about keeping programs together; you don't worry about employment issues. What you say to each other is, 'What do we need to do to assure that these students excel?'"

Donkey duel
Although Democrats Jerry Combrink and Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, both see limited resources as public education's biggest problem, Combrink feels inadequate school funding is the result of the economy, while Paddack said it's about priorities at the Capitol.

Both Combrink and Paddack support State Question 744.

"From my experience in school administration, I sincerely believe that the only way that schools will ever get adequate funding, regardless of which party is in control, is to pass a state question mandating it," Combrink said.

 Paddack, a former junior high science teacher who has also taught graduate education courses, said parents and educators need to contact their officials to let them know how they feel about cuts to teaching jobs and services.

"Elected officials are a reflection of their constituents "¦ and funding is always about priorities," she said. "You always see that things with high priority receive the dollars, even when there are limited dollars."

Combrink, a retired superintendent with more than 40 years of classroom and administrative experience, sees the state's across-the-board emphasis on college preparatory work almost as troubling as funding woes.

He would like the state to follow more of a two-track system, where college-bound kids and career-bound kids are not subject to the same instructional standards.

"Everyone, with very few exceptions, has to take (a) state college curriculum course," Combrink said, a former math and science teacher. "This dilutes teaching efforts "¦ to the true college-bound. Also, the non-college-bound have to take too-advanced math and science classes."

Combrink would like to see schools take advantage of their vocational-technical trade options, which, from his experience, would greatly reduce dropout rates.

"Each school should offer career-specific classes," he said. "They could prepare students so that when they graduate high school, they're ready for an entry-level job as a skilled professional."

Paddack said that although some involved in the original ACE (Achieving Classroom Excellence) discussion felt that every child should go to college, the original intent of ACE legislation was to challenge each student.

"(ACE) was always to allow (students) to go into work if that's what they have to do, to go on to technical training, or to go on to college," she said.

 Paddack said if you apply what makes successful charter schools to public schools " parental involvement, flexibility and great teachers and leadership " they'll be equally successful.

"Charter schools are one tool in the toolbox, and we want to use every tool we've got to be effective," she said.

Paddack would like the state department to become more proactive in setting a vision or strategic plan for the state in the coming decades.

 "There's an opportunity there at the state superintendent's office to be even more proactive," she said. "They're in a unique position to be in tune with best practices and policies all across the nation."

Combrink said his experience, knowledge and passion make him the best candidate, whereas Paddack said her background in education, community business and legislative experience make her uniquely qualified.

The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries will face independent candidate Richard E. Cooper in the Nov. 2 election. The winner of that election will replace Garrett, who is not seeking re-election after five four-year terms as the state's executive educator. "Sarah Clough Chambers | Nicole Hill contributed to this story.

photo, top to bottom: Janet Barresi; Brian Kelly: Jerry Combrink; Sen. Susan Paddack; Richard E. Cooper.

Biographical sketches
Jerry Combrink (D), Durant
Combrink earned both bachelor's and master's degrees from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, followed by his superintendent certification from the University of Oklahoma. He served as superintendent of schools for 30 years in the districts of Blue (later consolidated with Bokchito to form Rock Creek) and Boswell, was a classroom teacher of math and science for five years, and a teaching principal for an additional five years. Combrink served on the State Superintendent's Advisory Council for several years. He was a member of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) during his years in school administration. He is currently the president of the Oklahoma Rural Education Association chapter in Bryan County, and a life member of the Oklahoma Education Association.

Susan Paddack (D), Ada
Paddack graduated with a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in secondary education from East Central University. Paddack has served as a state senator for District 13 since 2004, and currently serves as a Democratic whip and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. She is also a member of the Education Committee, Appropriations Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the Tourism and Wildlife Committee. Paddack serves in various capacities in local, state and national volunteer organizations, including past service on the boards of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, the Center for Nonprofit Management and the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence.

Janet Barresi (R), Edmond
Barresi graduated with a bachelor of arts in education and a master's in speech and language disorders from the University of Oklahoma, and served in the Harrah and Norman public school systems. In 1984, Barresi received her doctor of dental surgery degree and managed her own dental practice for 24 years. She helped form Independence Charter Middle School and Harding Charter Preparatory High School and retired as president of the board to run for superintendent. She chairs the Achieving Classroom Excellence II Task Force and has served on the Education Funding Reform Task Force and the Teacher Performance Pay Initiatives under House Speaker Chris Benge.

Brian Kelly (R), Edmond
Kelly received his bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in education administration, policy and planning from the University of Maryland. He has taught at the secondary level in several Oklahoma City schools and Norman. He holds certifications in 13 subject areas as well as three administration areas and has coached football for both high school and collegiate teams. He is currently vice president for field operations for Northmoor Building, a family-owned business.

  • or