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Passing the gavel



State Superintendent Sandy Garrett took the gavel one last time on Dec. 16 as she chaired her final regular state Board of Education meeting.

After two decades at the post, Garrett, who did not run for reelection, is retiring in January, when Superintendent-elect Janet Barresi will be sworn into office.

“Certainly, it has really been a good time for all of us,” Garrett said. “I’ve known Janet for a long time, and she’s really focused on a good education system for this state.”

Barresi attended Garrett’s final board meeting, where she was introduced to the board members and addressed those in attendance.

Barresi, who was Garrett’s dentist, has a bachelor’s degree in education and founded two Oklahoma City charter schools: Independence Middle School and Harding Charter Prep.

“I’m looking forward to working with all of you,” Barresi told the board. “We are looking to improve education for every child in the state of Oklahoma, no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what their capabilities. I share with you the belief that every child can learn. Every child has the ability to reach their full potential. I will devote all of my energies and all of my attention to work with you to achieve just that.”

Garrett said she is looking forward to retirement, and will hopefully become involved in working on the state’s foster care system.

“I’ve enjoyed my 20 years,” Garrett said. “I am ready to move on and ready to relax for a while.”

Although there were well-wishes, congratulations and a general sense of a changing-of-the-guard at the meeting, it was far from being strictly a ceremonial goodbye party.

The board narrowly passed a measure that will likely cause schools to make midyear budget cuts. The vote came on the heels of an attorney general’s opinion stating that the state Department of Education must pay into the Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System.

At the end of the 2010 Legislative session, the Legislature appropriated funds to common education. Unlike previous years, the measure did not include line-item funding for education programs, essentially passing to the board the decision of where to cut because of the budget crunch.

In late July, the board decided to fund school district employees’ health insurance, which the state is also required to fund, yet in many cases does not, rather than put the estimated $35 million into the teachers’ retirement fund.

When the state does not pay for school employees’ insurance and benefits, the individual school districts must pick up the tab, with the money usually coming out of the districts’ general fund.

School employee insurance costs rose by around 8 percent last year, and are expected to rise about 1.5 percent in January, Garrett said.

However, in the attorney general’s written opinion, the Department of Education is bound by law to put money into the teachers’ retirement fund.

Since the fiscal year is halfway over, only $18 million of the original $35 million remains, said Garrett. She suggested the board vote to transfer the remaining $18 million into the retirement fund and ask the Legislature for two supplemental appropriations: one to pay the retirement fund balance, and a second to go toward paying employee health insurance.

It would not be responsible to leave the decision to the next administration, Garrett said.

“There is no good answer here. No good answer,” Garrett said.

If given a choice, many teachers would rather the department fund insurance, said Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators.

“The money’s got to come from somewhere. It is not the teachers’ responsibility, and they are so afraid,” Tinney said. “The schools cannot absorb it. They cannot do it.”

Steven Crawford, Garrett’s appointee to the teachers’ retirement system board, told the Board of Education that they should abide by the attorney general’s opinion, but it would likely cost jobs.

“The reason you made the decision you made in the fall is you did not want to cost a teacher their job,” Crawford said. “This decision will cause someone to lose their job, but not till next fall.”

The board was deeply divided about how to proceed. Board member Tim Gilpin argued that the department should continue using the money to fund insurance, thus keeping districts from having to make midyear cuts, a move that could cause the department to wind up in court.

“My feeling is there is no good choice,” Gilpin said. “In a situation where there’s no good choice, to ask the districts to come up with $18 million more will probably force them into a crisis situation where there will probably be reduction in forces.”

The board tied 3-3 on the measure, and Garrett cast the deciding vote to go ahead and put the money toward the teacher retirement fund.

The board also voted unanimously to send a $2.6 billion budget to the Legislature, an increase of $381 million from this year’s appropriation. The increase is meant to compensate for the loss of federal stimulus money at the end of this fiscal year, last year’s funding cuts because of revenue shortfalls and the department’s increased expenses.

The current year’s budget is almost $197 million less than the previous year’s appropriation because of the state’s revenue shortfall.

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