The results of school board elections in two districts that have generated strong backlash because of their refusal to provide full-time, in-person learning may highlight the growing political influence of parents in education issues.
In Edmond, candidate Margaret Best finished first in a field of five candidates that included incumbent Lee Ann Kuhlman. Best received 34 percent of the vote. Kuhlman placed second with 27 percent, meaning 73 percent of voters cast their ballot for a non-incumbent candidate in the race.
For most of the school year, Edmond students have been on an “A/B” schedule in which students receive in-person classroom instruction only a few days each week on a rotating basis and otherwise learn online.
In a video posted to her campaign Facebook page on Feb. 8, Best said, “I am advocating for schools to be open five days a week. Our children are not only failing academically, but their mental health is declining rapidly, and we need our kids back in school.”
In Stillwater, school-board candidate Marshall Baker was the top finisher in a three-way race, receiving 48.5 percent of the vote, falling just short of the outright majority required to avoid a runoff election.
Both Best and Baker were supported by local chapters of Parent Voice Oklahoma, which describes its mission as working to “to elevate the role of parents in regards to educational decisions at the school, district, and state level.”
A consistent theme from parents involved in Parent Voice Oklahoma is the need for all schools to provide full-time, in-person instruction as an option. The group is also supporting legislation that would allow parents to force recall elections for school-board members under certain circumstances.
Stillwater is among a handful of schools that have operated almost entirely online throughout the current school year, a decision that has drawn strong objections from local parents who note countless other school districts have safely reopened.
Some Stillwater parents have even filed a lawsuit to force the district to fully reopen.
In a Feb. 7 Facebook post, Baker wrote, “ARE YOU FOR GOING BACK TO SCHOOL? That is the number one question candidates have been asked. I am the only candidate for Ward 5 that has provided specific, policy-informing, data-driven solutions that I would bring to discussions that reflect community opinions. We all want to be back, the debate is around HOW!!!”
While the growing political organization and voting power of parents may be changing electoral outcomes in high-profile school-board races, it has also drawn blowback from some officials.
In a Jan. 5 Facebook post, later deleted, Oklahoma State University professor Thad Leffingwell declared that “our neighbors who continue to disregard teacher and staff safety and put their needs above all else can go to hell.”
That post did not directly specify what activity he was referencing. However, when a commenter responded, “I don’t know exactly what they are doing, but Your neighbors can go to hell. I agree,” Leffingwell elaborated that those he was addressing were “mostly” on the Facebook page of the Parents Voice group.
The university’s website identifies Leffingwell as the head of the department of psychology at OSU.
Both Best and Baker now proceed to runoff elections in April.