Okla. superintendent addresses administrators

SEAN MURPHY - Associated Press
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Shelly Unsicker-Durham, who teaches in Moore, Okla., carries a sign during a protest against education budget cuts in Oklahoma City, Thursday, July 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Delivering her first State of Education address on Thursday, Oklahoma's new Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi urged public school administrators and teachers to rise to the challenge of budget cuts totaling $100 million this year to public schools.

Barresi, a dentist and charter school organizer elected in November to replace longtime Democratic Superintendent Sandy Garrett, delivered her address to about 2,500 participants at the annual administrative conference at the Cox Convention Center.

"This conference is focused on Oklahoma's answer to a challenging time," Barresi said. "Whenever this state has faced a challenge, it has risen to it. We don't need to wait for more money or more time. This is our time.

"And we're definitely in a time that is both challenging and exciting."

Barresi said this year's conference, dubbed "Innovation 2011," will include fewer presentations from people within the state Department of Education and more sessions with administrators and professionals from around the state.

She also touted a series of new education initiatives she helped pass into law this legislative session, including laws that make it easier for districts to fire teachers, prohibit students from advancing to third grade who can't read proficiently, and requiring all public schools to be graded on an A through F scale based on their performance.

"Not everyone agrees with these reforms. I understand that," Barresi said. "I would urge that those who disagree: Give these reforms a chance. Give them time to work. And my pledge to those who disagree is to continue to engage in a respectful dialogue."

While Barresi delivered her address inside the center, a few dozen teachers lined the street outside to oppose budget cuts recently approved by Barresi and the state Board of Education. Holding signs that read "Barresi is Wrong" and "Save our Schools," several teachers said they were particularly troubled by cuts to professional development programs for teachers.

"She is either grossly incompetent or dangerously threatening to public education," said Elise Robillard, a French teacher and the chair of the World Language Department at Westmoore High School. "Her title is superintendent of public instruction, and she is destroying public instruction as part of a plan, I believe ... of taking education and making it private in Oklahoma."

Robillard said she and several protesters have received National Board Certification, an advanced teaching credential that requires candidates to complete a rigorous assessment based on standards for their certificate areas. Barresi's budget eliminated funding that includes scholarships for teachers to apply for certification as well as the $5,000 annual bonus for recipients.

Shelly Unsicker-Durham, a National Board Certified English teacher from Central Junior High in Moore, said the elimination of professional development programs is particularly hard on teachers who already have endured three consecutive years of budget cuts.

"Everything that made me a better teacher has been axed in this budget," she said. "I don't mind sacrificing. If she wants my $5,000, take my $5,000. But jump in there with us and have some shared sacrifice."

According to the National Board's website, as of the 2009-10 school year, 2,820 teachers in Oklahoma had received such certification. The bonus program already had been suspended for new National Board-certified teachers for two years because of the state's budget crisis. Not funding it for this year would save $12 million, according to Barresi's budget proposal.

Barresi said the Education Department will ask individual districts to award the bonuses during the coming fiscal year.