Education

School administrators to lobby, play golf in OKC

April 15, 2019

Ray Carter

A group of public-school administrators planning to visit Oklahoma City during school hours on April 24 appear poised to spend more time golfing than in direct meetings with lawmakers, even though the purported purpose of the trip is legislative outreach, based on an email from one of the group’s leaders.

In a Feb. 8 email with the subject line, “Spring Activities,” Alex Superintendent Jason James provided updates “on SWOA activities.” SWOA refers to the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association.

Among other things, James wrote, “I propose April 24th as the SWOA day at the Capitol & lunch. Please invite your legislator.” He then outlined an agenda for the day that begins with a briefing from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators, two lobbying organizations.

After meeting with the lobbyist groups, James wrote that SWOA members would “then spend an hour at the Capitol, then meet at Toby Keith’s for lunch. We will play Golf after somewhere in the Metro area. Any suggestions?”

The line about Toby Keith’s appears to be a reference to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Oklahoma City.

The email was sent to nearly 70 addresses, most of which appear to belong to school administrators.

Lawmakers said they often hear from individual school administrators in their districts and are familiar with schools’ paid lobbyists at OSSBA and CCOSA. But, based on the response of legislators representing parts of southwest Oklahoma, the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association has achieved name recognition and influence in keeping with a single-hour day of lobbying.

“I’ve never even heard of them,” said Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus, who is now serving his 11th year in the Legislature. “I don’t know that any of my administrators are part of that.”

He said it is possible some administrators in his district could be part of the group, but if so, they have not made a point of mentioning the organization.

“I’ll put it this way: I don’t know that they aren’t members, but I don’t know of any of my administrators that are,” Ortega said.

Ortega’s district includes the Altus, Mangum, Granite, Hobart, Hollis, Duke, Snyder, and Navajo schools. According to a member list on the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association website, administrators from six of those eight school districts belong to the organization, and the recipient list for James’ e-mail included individuals from the Hobart and Snyder schools.

Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, who has served in the House since 2011, had a similar reaction. When asked if he was familiar with the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association, Russ simply answered, “No.”

School districts in Russ’ district that are listed as members on the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association’s website include Burns Flat, Canute, Cheyenne, Clinton, Elk City, Hammon, Hobart, Lone Wolf, Cordell, Sayre, and Sweetwater. Officials in at least eight of those districts were among the recipients of James’ email.

The Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association website provides little information about the group’s purpose or activities. It does provide a list of member schools and group officers, listing James as the organization’s vice president.

An “events” tab on the site takes visitors to a page with no events listed. However, the bottom of the home page of the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association website includes a reference to an “SWOA Golf Tournament,” but no further information is provided.

In an interview, James said he is also past president of the SWOA and that the group consists of school administrators who “raise money for scholarships and we share information.”

He confirmed SWOA members are coming to Oklahoma City on April 24 for a lobbying day, and that the morning will begin with a briefing from OSSBA and CCOSA officials.

“We’re going to be briefed on current legislation status and then we go over to the Capitol and visit with our legislators,” James said.

When asked if an afternoon of golf was typical of the group’s lobbying days, James said, “The golf is how we raise money for scholarships.”

When asked how much money the group has provided in scholarships, James said he did not know and referred the question to the SWOA’s treasurer.

The scholarship tab on the SWOA website provides no information other than links to various state colleges. The site has no application form for potential scholarship recipients or any information regarding scholarship qualifications.

The site lists Ron Hughes of the Burns Flat-Dill City school district as SWOA’s treasurer. When contacted, an official at the Burns Flat-Dill City district said Hughes is deceased and referred inquiries about SWOA scholarship activity to Jeff Daugherty, superintendent of Merritt Public Schools. When contacted, Daugherty provided a rough estimate, saying the SWOA has handed out $2,000 to $4,000 in scholarships over the last three to four years.

Notably, Merritt Public Schools’ website has a page that lists scholarships and associated deadline dates. That page does not include reference to any scholarship offered by the Southwest Oklahoma Administrators Association.

Critics have long complained school administrators use supposed “lobbying days” as a fig-leaf excuse to take de facto vacations while billing taxpayers for associated travel, eating expenses, and even hotel accommodations.

In some instances, such practices have caught the attention of auditors. A 2014 state audit of Dickson Public School found the school paid employees to drive to Oklahoma City to hand deliver paper copies of teacher contracts to the state Department of Education. Then staff members would eat at locations such as the Cheesecake Factory, paying for meals with a district credit card. The school superintendent claimed those trips were necessary to obtain written confirmation that reports had been received.

“The necessity of these trips is questionable and attendance of three-to-five employees per trip may appear excessive,” the audit noted. “A phone call or email to the Department of Education possibly could be used to collect information. Several postal options are also available that provide proof of delivery.”

The Dickson district also held a one-night planning session for administrators in 2013 at the Gaylord Texan Resort near Dallas at taxpayers’ expense.

In 2018, an independent audit found former Tishomingo Superintendent Kevin Duncan had used $78,000 in school funds for personal purchases, including $1,400 in travel reimbursements for a hotel that did not appear to be a job-related trip.

Duncan was one of 20 administrators named 2016 District Superintendents of the Year by the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators. He was also a panelist at a 2016 conference sponsored by CCOSA and OSSBA, speaking on management of federal funds.

Based on Department of Education records, several schools listed as SWOA members are operating on four-day school weeks this year. Those schools are typically closed on Mondays or Fridays. The group’s April 24 lobbying day is a Wednesday.

Photo Credit: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

Join Our Mailing List