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Witnesses badgered at science meeting

Board members say they went too far but offer no apologies Friday, January 20, 2006 Catherine Candisky THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

When it came time for the public to comment at the end of last week’s state Board of Education meeting on controversial science standards, it wasn’t the board that got grilled — it was the public.

The badgering and berating of witnesses by some board members on Jan. 10 came after the panel narrowly rejected an effort to delete portions of the curriculum guidelines — and after reporters and television crews had left.

Newly released tapes obtained by The Dispatch from the Department of Education show:

• Elected board member Michael Cochran of Blacklick "cross-examined" a string of witnesses, including a graduate student, who criticized the 10 thgrade biology plan.

• Elected board member Deborah Owens Fink of Richfield questioned the character of a witness by producing an e-mail he wrote to a colleague that ridicules a supporter of intelligent design.

• One person declined to testify, citing attacks on previous witnesses.

• Cochran and appointed board member Richard E. Baker of Hollansburg showed their apparent lack of interest by reading a newspaper during the testimony.

The display prompted one board member to urge his colleagues to behave.

"I'm not convinced in my mind that cross-examining witnesses that make presentations before the board is in the best policy of boardmanship. I think it might be better to listen to the testimony and let it pass," said board member Eric C. Okerson, an appointed member from Cincinnati.

But the plea did little to cool the proceedings, which followed a 9-8 vote to maintain state guidelines for 10 th-grade biology.

Critics say the model curriculum promotes the teaching of intelligent design and undermines Darwin's theory of evolution. Supporters say it calls for a thorough study of evolution.

Okerson's comment came after Cochran and Fink blasted the first witness, an Ohio State University professor, about an e-mail he had written to a colleague.

On behalf of the Ohio State University Senate, Jeffrey McKee told the board that the panel of students, professors and administrators opposed a portion of the science guidelines.

Then Fink read the e-mail — she did not disclose how she got it — in which McKee ridiculed a faculty member who is a proponent of intelligent design.

"Does that sound familiar to you?" Fink asked.

"Yes indeed it does. I wrote it," McKee responded.

"My point is that Dr. McKee has a very unprofessional way in dealing with colleagues who do not agree with him," Fink said.

"Private e-mails are none of your business, but in dealing in public, I have always maintained the highest academic and professional standards and I always will. What I say as a joke to my colleagues when relieving stress is not the business of this board," McKee said.

"You voluntarily came up and put your credibility on the line," Cochran countered. "Your public voice seems to be much different from your private voice. I just find it difficult to believe anyone who has a public voice and then has such a different private voice."

Cochran, pastor of Christ Church Anglican and executive director of the Ohio Township Association, didn't let up on the next witness, Keith Morris, an Ohio State graduate student.

The "critical analysis of evolution plan is full of inaccuracies and lies that have been made clear by Ohio Citizens for Science and many honest board members," Morris said.

Cochran replied: "If I heard your testimony correctly, those who agree with your point of view are honest and those who disagree are dishonest. Is that what you said?"

"Yes, as far as passing off (intelligent design) as science," Morris said.

"So half the board is dishonest? How do you square your comments with the ratings from (Thomas B.) Fordham Foundation and Education Weekly which gave us an A- and a B?"

"Well, I'm not aware of that. But what I do know . . . "

"Well, you are now. How do you analyze that?" Cochran interrupted. "They are probably dishonest, aren't they?"

Later, when it was Carter McAdams' turn to address the board, the Oberlin man declined.

"I think given how some of the people have been treated, I won't talk today."

At one point, Cochran opened a newspaper, joining Baker who had been reading since the board first began debating the issue hours earlier.

The display prompted Brian McEnnis, an Ohio State math professor, to ask, "I would appreciate, sirs, Mr. Cochran and Mr. Baker, if you would refrain from public displays of rude behavior by reading the newspaper when I'm . . ."

Cochran interrupted: "I'm going to do what I want to do when I'm sitting at this table without any type of . . . "

"Mr. Cochran," interrupted board President Sue Westendorf , an appointed member from Bowling Green, banging her gavel. " . . . interruption by you," Cochran continued. "If you say something appropriate, I'll listen to it."

Yesterday, Cochran and Fink said they may have gone too far in some of their remarks to witnesses but stopped short of apologizing.

"When people come before the board, I think board members have every right to ask questions," said Fink, whose term expires this year. "It was an anomaly, but I don't think that one side is to blame and the other side is not."

She and Cochran said they have tired of the issue.

"We have debated this issue ad nauseum," said Cochran, whose term expires in December 2008. "The same people come forward and say the same thing and it comes to a point where you can't listen anymore.

"I think it boiled over because it was the end of a long day and it was the same subject matter we've heard over and over."

Both Gov. Bob Taft's office and the state Department of Education have received complaints about the meeting.

"Obviously the governor expects board members to act respectfully and professionally," said Taft spokesman Mark Rickel.

Board members are paid $32.02 an hour plus travel expenses and attend one 2˝-day meeting each month.

This article is being posted here either because it is no longer available online or requires a payment to view on its regular site. This article is posted for educational purposes only and the author retains all rights.

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