Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Board misbehavior may have sparked long-overdue reforms

[This Marlin Oil advertorial appears in the February 3 edition of The City Sentinel.]

The shocking confrontation between aggressive members of the state Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi drew national attention and saturation news coverage last week.

Startling and rude comments about working women by a couple of members, passed off as jokes, drew the most attention. While inappropriate and unfortunate, the reaction to those comments might mask the real issues involved in the searing rhetorical warfare and verbal salvos that board member Tim Gilpin aimed at Barresi as he and his allies methodically denied her right to make management decisions.

The superintendent is the only statewide elected position where the occupant must go to a governing board to seek permission to run her own agency. This is a broken and dysfunctional model in any rational analysis, especially so when the philosophies of the board and the superintendent differ. All six members of the current board were appointed by the last governor.

To say the philosophical views of the current superintendent and the board differ is an understatement. Gilpin advocated State Question 744, the controversial National Education Association ballot initiative that would have increased taxes by more than a billion dollars after implementation, and/or forced similar-sized budget cuts. The NEA initiative got a whopping 18 percent of the vote in November.

Janet Barresi got 56 percent in her race, while facing two opponents. She is the first Republican superintendent in state history.

In the end, this battle was and is about power -- and the ability, under Oklahoma's quirky ultra-populist system, of unelected members of one party to freeze efforts at reform endorsed by overwhelming majorities. The processes of decision-making are called "governance," which is a way of saying "how things work." Being allowed to govern will not make anyone a dictator, as Gilpin absurdly asserted about Barresi, but it will focus decision-making where it belongs: on the woman elected to do the job.

The only good that might come from the rudeness and lack of decorum of last week's meeting is that it may have sparked long-overdue reforms at the Board of Education. Although a constitutional agency, board powers and the terms of members are set by statute. That means the Legislature and the governor can make changes.

State Reps. Scott Martin and Jason Murphey have advanced a proposal to make elections count, by allowing Governor Mary Fallin to make most appointments to state boards and commissions. Other ideas are circulating at the state Capitol that might be focused on the particular dysfunction at the state Board of Education.

Barresi wants a meaningful performance audit of the Education Department. That is just for starters. She should be given the power and the authority to make things happen. Gilpin and former state Sen. Herb Rozell, the worst offenders, should resign. It would be a good end to a bad start if they suddenly behaved like gentlemen, and let the elected representatives of the people make public policy.

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