|State Supt. Janet Barresi|
The lead spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi rebuffed criticisms of his boss and of the state Board of Education, contending the governing body for public schools in Oklahoma faced “tough decisions” and made them within the law and under authority granted to the state Department of Education.
In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, agency Communications Director Damon Gardenhire defended Barresi in particular against assertions her priorities were misplaced.
He said, “There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on. We understand that those who are advocates of particular programs might not like particular decisions. With the cuts education has sustained, we know people will be upset no matter what we do. It is understandable that those with a stake in particular programs could be upset.”
He continued, “The Board and Superintendent Barresi had a lot of tough decisions to make, and there was not much room for cuts that avoided upsetting someone.
“It would have taken $15 million [fully] to fund the Board certified teachers. If you add all the numbers up, and look at school lunches and matching funds and so forth, there was not much money left. These were tough calls. The Superintendent had said she wanted to fund what most directly effected classroom performance.”
This week, two Democratic state Representatives and the leader of an important non-union association of educators criticized the board’s decision not to fund stipends for National Board Certified teachers, while allocating funding to early childhood education programs.
Gardenhire sketched a process Barresi followed in preparing for last week’s decisions on how to spend school activities funds, a resource controlled by the state Board.
“She asked the fiscal staff to prepare options,” Gardenhire said. Based on a range of possible approaches, limited by the money available, he contends Barresi and the board acted properly.
One pointed criticism from teachers’ advocates has been that the board did not adequately fund the FBA (flexible benefits allowance).
However, Gardenhire provided information that he believes clarifies the issue. He said, “We did fund the benefits package, but in a 12 months cycle and not a 14 months cycle. The Legislature has made a firm commitment that they will help us with many funding issues in Fiscal Year 2013, but the money was not there in the 2012 cycle.
“Obviously some people are upset because the budget clearly reflects tough decisions. The fact of the matter is that there wasn’t a lot of money … the superintendent and the board focused on putting money where it would have the most directly impact on the classroom.”
He continued, “Many board certified teachers I’ve talked with have, after discussing the issue, told me they didn’t realize it was a $15 million item. Those who are saying ‘find the money’ don’t like or aren’t willing to point out how they would have paid for their preferences.
“The superintendent is here to make decisions and set priorities, and that is what she did.”
On another funding issue, Gardenhire said the board and Barresi are required by law to provide the funding they did to early childhood education issues. He pointed to provisions several years ago, added to the school code of 1971 (Title 70, Chapter 1, Article Article X - School Population and Attendance, Section 10-105.4 - Early Childhood Pilot Program for At-Risk Children.)
That language provides, “The State Board of Education shall establish a pilot early childhood program to consist of private donations and state funds that will serve at-risk children in at least one urban area and one rural area of this state to be selected by the Board. The Board shall solicit applications from the private sector for the program and require applicants to match state funds on a two-to-one basis and commit a minimum investment of Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000.00) in the program.” (emphasis added)
Concerning one new state board member (Phil Lakin) serving in capacities that will benefit from the early childhood spending, Gardenhire demurred on addressing concerns of a conflict of interest, saying that the explicit requirement to act (with the language “shall”) did not leave the Board and Barresi an option to avoid funding the program.
From the $401 million in school activities funds the board controlled for Fiscal Year 2012, Barresi herself says the approach taken reflects “a new normal” of tight budgeting. Among others, advocates of early childhood education applauded the board’s decisions, as did rural Republicans who cheered retention of financing for Agriculture Education.
In FY 2011, $419,789,004.80 was available in activities funds. For this year, the total was $401,224,755.