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One doesn’t have to invest much time talking with area school superintendents before realizing the economics of keeping a school running are complicated. There are formulas to calculate, bills to pay before reimbursement funds are guaranteed, and years of declining revenues on top of which sit additional cutbacks this year in state and federal funding.
Nor does one have to spend much time with local school administrators to grasp their collective frustration with Janet Barresi, state superintendent of public education, who they say does not understand the day-to-day challenges they face.
“People like to paint her like she’s the devil’s sister,” said Pat Harrison, superintendent of Ada schools, referring to Barresi. “I’m not saying she is. I’m just saying she doesn’t get it.”
Bill Nelson, assistant superintendent of Byng schools, said he and other Oklahoma public school educators consider Barresi disconnected from schools because her life experience hasn’t put her in a position to make decisions concerning public education. “She was a successful businessperson and apparently a very bright student,” Nelson said. “She was a speech pathologist so she had a connection to school but that’s a very narrow specialty that would have very little to do with anything about school budgets.
“It would be much the same thing if you asked (school superintendents) to design her dental business or to design the test she had to take to be a dentist and design how she should set up her office. We would not have a grasp of it. It’s the same thing,” Nelson said.
“And I’m not saying it’s her fault,” Harrison said. “It’s just not her background. It would be nice to have somebody that’s in charge of common education in Oklahoma that has some experience in common education and knows what we’re going through, and know what it takes to get from A to B rather than throwing out grandiose ideas we all can tell immediately are not going to work.”
Nelson said Barresi’s agenda involves privatizing schools, an idea about which he is skeptical, particularly as concerns education in rural Oklahoma. “Privatization is an interesting concept out here in the country because if they shut down the public schools and go to privatization, who is to guarantee it would be worth someone’s money to come out here and get it started?” Nelson said. “And if they don’t, what happens?”
Not so, insists Tricia Pemberton, senior communications specialist for Oklahoma State Department of Education, a Barresi spokesperson. “Change can be painful and even a little frightening, and so it’s no surprise that Superintendent Barresi’s drive for reform and rigor has its share of naysayers in the status quo,” Pemberton said. “Even so, some of these complaints are simply dismaying — and much of it is patently untrue.
“The suggestion about privatization is utter nonsense,” Pemberton said. “The superintendent is committed to making Oklahoma’s public education system as outstanding as we all know it truly can be. Superintendent Barresi has dedicated herself to that goal for many years, having founded two public schools that are still open, still operating publicly and still posting highly successful student academic achievement rates,” she said.
Nelson said Barresi presented an example of her educational philosophy at a state conference in which 350 students in Arizona were being taught online under the care of only five or six teachers. “Is there information you can learn from sitting in front of a screen? Absolutely,” Nelson said. “Every kid in the world can tell you that. They all know how to play video games. Are there things you need someone in front of you to tell you? I think most (school administrators) would say there’s some personal contact you need to have. You need to be able to ask somebody a question who can look you in the face and decide what you need to know.”
Local school administrators are not buying it. Nelson maintains Barresi does not consider personal teacher-student contact necessary. “Her leadership has been pointed in direct opposition of the philosophy of most people she supposedly works for. The state schools superintendent should be an advocate for public schools. There are online schools that are big business that are very supportive of her efforts,” Nelson said.
Local school officials say no one at the state level stands up for their schools’ interests. “There’s a move to gut and eliminate public schools, and Ms. Barresi is certainly at the forefront of that. She’s not an advocate for public schools. There’s something disconcerting about having the person in charge of public education in the state of Oklahoma who is an advocate for privatization of schools,” Nelson said.