Education , Law & Principles
Ray Carter | November 5, 2021
Stitt: OKC decision to fire teachers is ‘preposterous’
Gov. Kevin Stitt said Oklahoma City Public Schools’ decision to fire six teachers for not complying with a legally suspect mask mandate is “preposterous” and harms students.
“These are the types of misguided decisions that are leaving many parents across the country so frustrated with their local schools,” Stitt said in a video message. “Oklahomans believe in common sense, not political pandering and bureaucratic overreach. I cannot believe that, again, in the middle of a teacher shortage, a district would fire talented teachers because they wouldn’t follow an illegal order.”
Under Senate Bill 658, which became law this year, schools cannot impose mask mandates unless the governor has declared a state health emergency.
Despite the law, Oklahoma City Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced the district was imposing a mask mandate at the start of the school year, claiming that SB 658 banned the school board from imposing a mask mandate but not administrators acting without board approval.
Blake Sonne, general counsel of Professional Oklahoma Educators, which represents five of the teachers fired by the district, has called those claims “spurious legal arguments and semantic word games.”
When a court later barred SB 658 from taking effect while a court challenge was being heard, Sonne said the teachers informed the district they would comply with the district mask mandate, which was then legally allowed to take effect due to the court order. School officials chose to instead proceed with termination.
This week, at McDaniel’s request, the Oklahoma City school board fired teachers A.B. “Branch” Hague, Jesse Paxton, James Taylor, Grace Trick, Nelson Trick II, and Jason Widener because they chose not to wear masks at the start of the year when SB 658 was in effect and the mask mandate was illegal. At a press conference earlier this week, Sonne said the teachers would pursue legal action.
“It is a sad day for Oklahoma considering that a local school superintendent, and now a local school board, can usurp so much power and defy state law without any consequences,” Sonne said. “Of course, these teachers will amend their lawsuit to bring claims for breach of contract, wrongful termination, among other claims. But Oklahoma taxpayers have and will continue to foot the bill to finance the actions of Superintendent McDaniel and the Oklahoma City school board. And in a statewide teacher shortage, Oklahoma City just terminated five excellent educators for complying with state law.”
McDaniel claimed the six teachers engaged in willful neglect of duty and moral turpitude by refusing to wear masks.
Oklahoma City officials fired the teachers despite extremely low COVID rates in Oklahoma, a shortage of qualified teachers in the district, and massive learning loss in Oklahoma City schools during the district’s COVID shutdown, which was imposed much longer than most districts and lasted through much of the 2020-2021 school year.
According to data released by the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Nov. 5, there were 5,142 active cases of COVID in Oklahoma, meaning there is just one person with COVID out of every 769 people in the state.
Newly released district-level data showed that 90 percent of Oklahoma City Public Schools students performed below grade level in all subjects on the 2021 state tests, and that 67 percent of students were effectively more than one year behind.
According to data provided by the State Department of Education at the State Board of Education’s most recent meeting, the Oklahoma City school district has requested to hire 433 emergency certified teachers so far this year, more than any other district, and that number continues to grow.
Stitt pointedly noted the teachers targeted by the school do not belong to the Oklahoma chapter of the American Federation for Teachers, a union that represents many Oklahoma City teachers and whose national leadership has generally opposed school reopening. Instead, five of the fired teachers are members of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a non-union alternative.
Stitt also noted he had met one of the teachers, James Taylor, prior to the firing because of his reputation for classroom excellence.
“I visited his U.S. History class a few years ago and saw firsthand how talented he is,” Stitt said. “Pulling Dr. Taylor and other experienced, hardworking teachers out of the classroom is hurting Oklahoma City students—period.”
Stitt noted that students can opt out of Oklahoma City schools’ mask mandate for medical, religious, and personal reasons. Teachers were not allowed the same array of opt-out opportunities.
“These teachers, and all teachers, deserve those same rights,” Stitt said.
The governor called on Oklahoma City officials to reverse their actions and return the teachers to the classroom. If Oklahoma City officials will not do so, he urged other schools to “do what’s best for your students and hire these talented teachers in your district.”
Oklahoma City Public Schools has also drawn fire from other state officials, including the chairs of the education committees in both chambers of the Legislature, who both condemned the firings as illogical and counterproductive.
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.