Vote to disclaim negated
By BARBARA HOBEROCK AND SCOTT COOPER World Staff Writers 2/3/00

TEXTBOOK DEBATE

State's AG says book committee lacks authority

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Not only does the State Textbook Committee lack the authority to adopt a disclaimer for biology books, it willfully violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act when it attempted such a move on Nov. 5, according to an Oklahoma attorney general's opinion.

The committee's agenda misled the public, and its vote to adopt the disclaimer is invalid, according to an Oklahoma attorney general's opinion.

The opinion, released Wednesday, was requested by Sen. Penny Williams, D-Tulsa, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The committee lacks authority under state statutes to "require that a statement or pronouncement specified by the committee be added or placed in textbooks as a condition of their adoptions for use in Oklahoma public schools," the opinion said.

The committee's Nov. 5 agenda contains no item "which would inform the public that a disclaimer regarding evolution or any other topic was to be considered, much less voted on," the opinion said. "The agenda does not give the public notice that such a significant step might be taken."

The vote to require the disclaimer "was a willful violation of the Open Meeting Act and therefore invalid," the opinion said.

The penalty for violating the state's Open Meeting Act is $500 and up to a year in the county jail, said Gerald Adams, a spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy could not be reached for comment on whether his office will take any action.

The committee created a firestorm of controversy when it unanimously voted to require a disclaimer in certain science textbooks stating that evolution is ``a controversial theory'' and refers to the ``unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.''

Government leaders and national organizations weighed in on the committee's decision. State legislators, the governor and the Oklahoma Southern Baptists Association defended the disclaimer.

But the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Science Teachers Association were quick to cry foul.

The members of the committee have remained quiet since the November meeting and continued their silence on Wednesday.

``What we have to say, we say in the committee,'' said member Karen Wellman, a teacher with Marietta Public Schools.

Broken Arrow teacher John Dickmann and Oklahoma City teacher Lynne Machado didn't want to comment until they looked at the opinion and the statutes used by the attorney general.

Carol Ann Cone of Bartlesville said she had no comment, and Tulsa Public Schools teacher Tamara Lilly said she wouldn't comment until the committee's next meeting.

The committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. on Friday in Room 412-C at the state Capitol.

Five other committee members did not return phone calls. Committee chairwoman Pamela Smith-Umsted was out of town, according to Caney Public School officials.

Williams' request was not the first submitted concerning the committee and the disclaimer.

On Dec. 22, committee member Machado requested an opinion from the attorney general on the board's actions.

"Opinions are issued only to commissions after a vote of the whole commission on behalf of the commission," Adams said. "It was not a proper request. We will not respond."

But Williams on Jan. 3 asked for an opinion as to whether the committee had the power to adopt a disclaimer. She amended the request on Jan. 6, adding the open meetings issue.

Williams said the committee's action generated a lot of discussion and she got calls from constituents.

No one asked her to seek the opinion, Williams said.

"Well, it seemed to me the authority was to reject and they have the right to do that, reject anything they want," Williams said. "I was certainly curious to see if they had the authority to go beyond rejecting or approving. I didn't think they did, but I didn't know. I am not a lawyer."

Gov. Frank Keating appointed the committee and supported the disclaimer.

"I have said that I believe that the textbook disclaimer crafted by the state textbook committee was good in its concept, as it neither condemned nor embraced the theory of evolution," Keating said. "Instead, the disclaimer simply encouraged students to keep an open mind and explore a wealth of ideas surrounding the origin of mankind. But that having been said, I do respect the conclusion of Attorney General Edmondson that the textbook committee, however well-intentioned, exceeded its authority in this case."

State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said she was pleased Edmondson handled the issue quickly. She said the committee's job is to review textbooks, not revise or write them.

"It will give them a clear direction about their authority," Garrett said. "Our main goal is to get science books in the hands of students in a timely fashion. This was going to hold it up."

As of late Wednesday, an item on Friday's agenda says the committee will discuss directions to publishers regarding the disclaimer. "They had never given directions to publishers on how to affix or place the disclaimer," Garrett said. "Publishers were holding up doing anything until they could get directions from the textbook committee which could not get a quorum in December." Textbook orders are placed in the spring and delivery is in June, Garrett said.

Barbara Hoberock, World Capitol Bureau reporter, can be reached at (405) 528-2465 or via e-mail at mailto:barbara.hoberock@tulsaworld.comscott.cooper@tulsaworld.com.


 

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