, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 17, 2014

Controversial Barresi draws raft of challengers

State superintendent faces calls for change

OKLAHOMA CITY — An unusually large field of candidates for state school superintendent is a sign of broad interest in what observers say is sure to be a referendum on the incumbent, Dr. Janet Barresi.

Six candidates filed papers to run against Barresi, the Oklahoma City dentist who established the state’s first charter school before her election as superintendent of public instruction in 2010.

Two Republicans are contesting Barresi in the primary; four Democrats have filed as well. All are calling for something new — a refrain that some credit to Barresi’s divisiveness.

“I think what it comes down to is she provokes strong feelings because she’s actually trying to do something,” said Brandon Dutcher, the senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank.

“She’s not really a politician. She’s a reformer who had to be a politician to reform," he said.

Barresi, who is in her first four-year term, hasn't always told people what they want to hear, Dutcher said.

“She’s a dentist, so in her world, it’s not always comfortable to give an uncomfortable diagnosis,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear they’ve been doing a bad job. They don’t like the diagnosis the doctor has given, and they certainly don’t like the prescription.”

Running against Barresi on the Republican ticket are Brian Kelly, a teacher in Edmond, and Joy Hofmeister, the president of JLH Resources Inc. of Tulsa and a former member of the state Board of Education.

The Democrats are Freda Deskin of Edmond, who is the founder of a charter school in Oklahoma City; John Cox of Hulbert, the superintendent of Peggs Public Schools; Jack Herron Jr. of Norman, the government relations director for Professional Oklahoma Educators; and Ivan Holmes of Oklahoma City, a retired college professor.

Linda Hampton, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said interest in the race is high because Barresi has given the superintendent's job a high profile by advocating policies such as new reading standards that third-graders must pass to advance to fourth grade and an A-to-F grading system for schools.

Hampton said the OEA is a nonprofit group and therefore doesn’t endorse candidates, but she said she hopes the election will bring change to a “ship that’s been headed in the wrong direction.”

“The actions have seemed to indicate more of a dictatorship than a partnership,” Hampton said.

The OEA will watch the race closely and plans a “very active” role in getting people to the polls, she said. The group has launched an initiative, Why June Matters, to encourage people to vote in the June 24 primary election.

Robyn Matthews, Barresi’s campaign manager, acknowledged divisiveness but said Barresi has imposed data-based reforms that are not welcomed by unions or administrators “who would prefer to simply spend more money without any expectation of improved student results.”

Matthews said Barresi is committed to ensuring that children can read by third grade and that high school diplomas signify that a student is ready for a career or college.

“Education is too important to play games or beat around the bush,” she said.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.

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