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Oklahoma's Strange Schools Standoff

I was midway through an interview with the communications director for Oklahoma's state schools superintendent Janet Barresi, when her spokesman corrected me on his job description.

"I'm not a state employee," Damon Gardenhire, the communications director, explained.

Gardenhire is not a state employee because Oklahoma's State Board of Education has not officially approved his hiring, or that of another top aide to Barresi, her chief of staff, Jennifer Carter. The impasse is the result of a standoff between members of the state board, who were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and Barresi, a Republican who was elected last fall. Board members have challenged several of the administrative moves made by Barresi, particularly when it comes to policies affecting the state's department of education.

They've accused Barresi of exceeding her authority and keeping them out of the loop. Barresi says the board has interfered with her ability to do her job.

As a result of the standoff, the salaries of Gardenhire, a former reporter and top aide to two speakers of the House in Oklahoma, and Carter are being paid by the 3R Initiative, Inc., a nonprofit that is being administered by the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma. According to Gardenhire, donors to the 3R Initiative include the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Helmerich Family Foundation, the Inasmuch Foundation, the Bank of Oklahoma, and Devon Energy. Gardenhire's salary is $92,000; Carter is making $96,000.

Gardenhire says he and Carter began being paid by the organization in December, with the expectation that their hirings would be approved by the board at a January meeting. Instead, board members objected to the pay arrangement at that meeting, which erupted in an exchange of angry accusations. (See an item I wrote about it a few months ago.)

"Obviously, we'd like to move forward with the people's business," Gardenhire told me. "It's an unusual situation."

A Democratic state senator has asked Oklahoma's Attorney General to investigate the legality of that salary arrangement. A spokewoman for AG told me the office has yet to issue an opinion on the matter.

Oklahoma's Republican-controlled state legislature, and the state's GOP governor, Mary Fallin, seem sympathetic to Barresi's desire to have more say over the education agency. They recently approved legislation will give Barresi, rather than the board, authority over the department.

One of the board members who questioned Barresi's moves, Herb Rozell, told me he "wholeheartedly disagrees" with the law because it places too much authority over the department and its budget with one person.

"There shouldn't be one person in charge of that much money," Rozell said.

Rozell also said the board was right to question the unusual pay arrangement for the superintendent's staff members. Even so, Rozell said he believes the panel is willing to move beyond those disputes and work amicably with Barresi. Tempers were reportedly held in check at a recent meeting.

With the passage of the recent law, Barresi will be given authority over the department later this year. And that's when Gardenhire says he hopes that he and his colleague, Carter, will finally be able to add "state employee" to their job descriptions.

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