Ray Carter | July 20, 2021
School boards resisting transparency?
When lawmakers voted this year to ban the teaching of certain concepts associated with Critical Race Theory, such as the belief that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive,” critics argued that lawmakers should instead leave that issue up to local school boards and parents.
But some citizens are finding that their local school boards are nonresponsive on major issues.
In Duncan, Deborah Campbell wrote to school district officials to ask that school board members hold a community town hall meeting so local residents can “get answers to questions, make comments, suggestions” on a broad range of issues.
When citizens speak at regular school board meetings, Campbell notes that board members do not respond to public questions, based on a legal interpretation that says such interactions violate the state’s open-meeting law and its requirement for advance posting of an agenda.
In a response to Campbell, Duncan Superintendent Tom Deighan wrote, “… I am happy to attend any event you would like to invite me to, to meet with you or any group, to attend any event, and to answer any questions you may have about DPS or educational issues in general. This is a fairly common request for me, and I am happy to oblige.”
Deighan’s response was in sharp contrast to that of the school board.
“To date, I have not received acknowledgement from any school board member,” Cambell said.
She said the current system effectively prevents public input into major school decisions because board members simply do not interact with the public. Parents and other citizens are limited to the role of bystanders at school-board meetings, she said.
“You can observe but not be part of the discussion or decisions in context of spending money, companies and curriculum etc.,” Campbell said. “Their decisions impact students, families and community.”
Parents in Tulsa have also encountered silence from most school-board members.
Melissa Remington and Les Kaup, two parents involved with the Parent Voice organization, recently sent a letter to the board of Tulsa Public Schools regarding the implementation and enforcement of HB 1775.
“As you are aware many concerns have been raised regarding the enforcement, compliance, and adherence by all Oklahoma Public School teachers, administrators or other school employees, school officials, staff, support staff, including school board members, consultants, and community philanthropic organizations,” the letter stated. “With the passage of HB 1775 and the emergency rules adopted July 12, 2021, we request that every effort is made by Tulsa Public Schools to comply with the provisions in the law and rule.”
Remington and Kaup noted that Tulsa’s school policies and district procedures must be updated to comply with the law.
Remington said they have received a response from only one school board member.
In a brief July 16 email, Tulsa school board member John Croisant wrote that district officials have indicated “that we are already in compliance with HB 1775, because there is nothing on it that doesn’t already fall under the Oklahoma Standards that TPS is already following” and said the district has had no complaints regarding any alleged violations of HB 1775.
Croisant noted that “all board meetings allow for public comment,” but acknowledged that he did “not see anywhere that this bill is on the agenda for the board to discuss.”
No other members of the Tulsa school board have responded.
A similar situation has occurred in the Western Heights school district, which has been roiled by allegations of mismanagement. Despite ousting one incumbent school-board member earlier this year, parents say most Western Heights board members refuse to engage with them.
“Nobody answers phones. Nobody answers emails. Nobody answers texts. Nobody answers messages on Facebook,” said Brianna Dodd, a parent in the Western Heights school district. “Literally, we’ve tried to reach out to them in multiple, different ways.”
Due in part to the refusal of school-board members to respond to parents, some citizens have endorsed legislation that would allow for recall elections of school-board members under certain circumstances. That legislation could be heard next February.
In the meantime, one expert said parents have limited options.
Joey Senat, an associate professor in the Oklahoma State University School of Media & Strategic Communications who also serves as faculty adviser for the student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, notes that neither the state’s Open Meeting Act nor the First Amendment “require that public comment be allowed during such meetings.”
“Even the state statute requiring a public hearing on school district budgets doesn’t require that school board members respond to the comments offered by the public,” Senat said in a written statement.
For parents with questions on school-board matters that are not on an agenda, Senat indicated there’s basically one option.
“Nothing prohibits school board members from holding individual town hall meetings,” Senat wrote. “Just as they do when they are campaigning for the school board seat—which would be an opportunity for voters to ask candidates about topics.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.