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Oklahoma State Superintendent Criticized For Having Too Much Power

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Picture of State Superintendent Janet Barresi. Picture of State Superintendent Janet Barresi.
This year's common education budget was cut by four percent. This year's common education budget was cut by four percent.
The State Capitol building in Oklahoma City. The State Capitol building in Oklahoma City.
Picture of Representative Ed Cannaday. Picture of Representative Ed Cannaday.

Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- State Superintendent Janet Barresi has been heavily criticized since last month's budget cuts. Now, as educators prepare for the school year, many say they still don't know how much money they have to spend and some are anticipating layoffs.

Barresi's budget decisions have many questioning whether she's been given too much power.

See this year's budget for the Oklahoma Department of Education

About 3,000 Oklahoma teachers lost the $5,000 stipends they were promised for being Nationally Board Certified.

"It sends a message that the system does not value us," John Waldron, a teacher, said.

John Waldron and his wife, Krista, are both teachers and are struggling to comprehend the new education budget.

Oklahoma's top ten ranking for Nationally Board Certified teachers has been one of the few bragging points for the state Department of Education.

6/24/2011 Related Story: Budget Cuts Slash Stipend For Oklahoma Teachers

The Waldrons said this will hurt teacher recruiting and hurt them financially.

"Is that fair? I mean this is really all about fairness," John said.

"I don't know if this is an issue of fairness. It's an issue of the fiscal reality of this state," Barresi said.

That reality was a four percent cut to this year's common education budget, making it necessary, Superintendent Barresi claims, to cut funding for those stipends and dozens of other programs, like the award-winning and sought after Tulsa Street School.

Barresi said deciding which programs to cut was extremely difficult, but, ultimately, came down to one thing: the kids.

"I remember sitting in this room and talking to staff members and I said, 'This is the decision point. Is this going to be about funding children and education programs for them and direct impact in the classroom? Or is this going to be about making adults happy?" Barresi said.

Since elected, Barresi has been given more power than any other state superintendent, thanks in part to her first board meeting.

A very public power struggle prompted state lawmakers to strip the board of some of its power, and give it to Barresi.

Then, for the second year in a row, legislative leaders approved only a generic education budget with no specific line items that had to be funded. That left Barresi in control of all funding decisions, which were then approved by the new board.

"So I'm again very humbled by the action of the legislature. I'm grateful for the ability to run this department and to essentially do the job that I was elected to do," she said.

But some state legislators, who aren't in leadership roles, believe they're not being given the chance to do what they were elected to do, in debating and approving line items of the education budget.

Representative Ed Cannaday is a former principal and now a legislative advocate for educators.

"The legislature is the one that has that connection, that direct connection with educators in the field, in the trenches, and if you take the line items out, you take that connection out," he said.

Cannaday said Barresi has too much power, but believes its legislative leaders' fault for giving it to her.

"What we've done though is basically given our superintendent a blank check and then said we didn't like the way you spent that check," he said.

Cannaday hopes the legislature will take back that power next year, if for nothing else, to fix the broken promise for teachers like the Waldrons. But Barresi says, like it or not, this appears to be the new normal.

"Change is difficult," Barresi said. "People want things to go back the way they were, but yet they want all the problems to go away."

Barresi insists she has no more power than her predecessor, Sandy Garrett; it's just that now the superintendent's authority is spelled out in statutes.

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