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December 17, 2013

Group argues for greater local control of schools

Ada — District 25 State Rep. Todd Thomsen told local residents who filled the Perfect Blend Coffee House Monday evening they weren’t there to fight and be unpleasant.

The town hall-type meeting would take place with everyone playing nicely.

That’s exactly what happened — at least in Ada.

Most audience members expressed the opinion that State School Superintendent Janet Barresi is out of control. Monday’s meeting was an effort to create a power base among local parents, teachers and administrators  without regard to political ideology.

Thomsen said he felt most in the audience want to return to a conservative education system, one with local control that holds teachers and administrators accountable to local school boards — not state and federal authorities.  

Barresi wasn’t even mentioned during the first 20 minutes of the meeting, but she was nonetheless on the minds of most people in the audience — particularly Loné Beasley, publisher of The Ada News.

“You’ve been genteel about it so far, but I’m glad her name has finally come up,” he said. “I’m a right-wing, conservative, Republican, cave-dwelling troglodyte, and I can tell you, Janet Barresi must go.

“She was upset about the teachers’ union chastising her about the A-F grading system, saying that since it came from the union, it wasn’t legitimate because the union opposes change,” he said. “I’ve talked to virtually all school superintendents in this county and what I get from them is, no teacher or school administrator supports what Barresi is doing.

“If we’re not careful, the message we will come away with from this meeting is that it’s all about money. It isn’t. It’s about a whole philosophy of education. What is being pushed now from the state is nonsense,” he said.

What irked some in the audience was politicians promising to spend the dollars it takes for tutoring and other special teaching devices to bring deficient students up to speed. Instead, the Legislature has refused to make education a priority by continually cutting back on funding. The result, Barresi’s critics say, has been too many students dropping out of school which might lead to expensive consequences down the road.

There were numerous complaints about the time teachers and students waste in mandatory testing.

A handout provided at the meeting showed Oklahoma as the second-worst state in America at paying  teachers. It noted that enrollment has risen by 40,000 students since 2009, with funding dropping by $200 million.

Oklahoma, more than any state in the U.S., has cut the amount of appropriations per student by 22.8 percent.

While Oklahoma legislators cut Oklahoma school districts’ funding by $30.7 million, AT&T was getting a $23 million tax break.

Parents pointed out that while Oklahoma elementary and secondary schools lost 4,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, classrooms are getting larger and more crowded.

A Jenks resident, Melissa Abdo, who has been bucking the system and encouraging a similar grass-roots movement in the Tulsa area for a long time, praised the Ada gathering of about 150 as being the largest she had seen at any of the initial meetings she’s attended around the state.

She’s been politically active with the Legislature and confronted Barresi personally. According to Abdo, when her arguments for more local control of Oklahoma schools ran head-on into Baresi’s push for more state intervention in some areas, she quoted Barresi as telling her, “Mom, why don’t you go home and worry about something else?”

The crowd loved it when Abdo responded to Barresi by explaining, “So, I did. I went home, and have been working hard for a new state school superintendent ever since.”

The crowd appeared united in its desire to see Barresi removed from office by any legal means necessary. Most agreed it was time for concerned parents to organize a movement capable of offering what politicians hate most — constituent pushback.

Regardless of which side of the issue a person comes down on with Oklahoma education, accountability  drives the conversation.

Much criticism was also directed at politicians in Oklahoma City who have not made education a top priority in recent years.

“They called for accountability of everyone but themselves,” Abdo said.

She said students have worked hard to do their part, but the Legislature has simply cut funding.

Those who elected Barresi called for tougher standards to make Oklahoma children more competitive in the workplace. She and Gov. Mary Fallin have been firm in their defense of the A-F grading system.

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