Ray Carter & Maddison Farris | March 7, 2024

Feet-licking fundraisers impact election debate

Ray Carter & Maddison Farris

At least two Oklahoma public school districts, Deer Creek and Edmond, have received national attention following the public release of videos showing students at the schools licking peanut butter off the feet and/or armpits of other individuals, supposedly for charity fundraisers sponsored by the schools.

The videos drew strong reactions not only from Oklahomans but from people across the country.

An article in the New York Post provided a typical response, calling the images “disturbing.”

Ironically, the Deer Creek district where students were allowed to lick people’s feet for a fundraiser was among the schools that did not provide full-time in-person learning, despite strong support for it from parents, during the COVID pandemic due to alleged health concerns.

Deer Creek’s COVID-response plan did not allow for all students to return to full-time, in-person learning until Oklahoma County’s infection rate was below 14.39 per 100,000 people for three weeks, meaning that if there was only one COVID case for every 6,250 people, full-time in-person instruction would not be provided to all willing students.

At the Sept. 14, 2020 meeting of the Deer Creek school board, 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson urged officials to keep that district closed despite parent pleas, saying school officials should not “rush to make decisions on our emotions nor have our teachers, administrators, or board tried within the court of Facebook law.”

Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows that the per-capita COVID infection rate in 44 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties was greater than the rate in Oklahoma County, where the Deer Creek school district is located, at that time.

At the school-board meeting, Nelson dismissed concerns about student learning loss from extended online instruction.

“The wonderful teachers of Deer Creek will fill in any deficits of learning that they may accrue this year,” Nelson said.

However, significant learning loss occurred. The results of state testing in the 2018-2019 school year, the last before COVID, showed 43 percent of students in the Deer Creek district were not proficient in core academic subjects at that time. Two years later, in the 2020-2021 school year, the share of non-proficient students had surged to 57 percent, even though just 2.2 percent of Deer Creek district residents have income below the poverty line and average household income in the district is nearly double the state average.

Low Turnout and ‘Community Standards’

The fact that school officials ignored parental support for reopening school during COVID yet considered foot-licking an acceptable form of charity fundraising has highlighted what many critics see as a looming gap between the parents of school children and those in charge of running local schools.

And that gap, in part, is tied to the fact that school-board seats are filled in extremely low-turnout elections.

State Rep. Chris Banning, R-Bixby, and State Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore, have authored House Bill 3563 and Senate Bill 244, which move school board elections to the general and primary elections already taking place in June and November of even-numbered years.

“We need to get more people to the polls.” —State Rep. Chris Banning (R-Bixby)

That change is guaranteed to increase voter turnout and would also save millions of dollars that schools currently pay to hold the off-cycle elections.

“Putting on on-cycle elections, November elections, will undoubtedly increase voter turnout,” Banning said. “There are a lot of individuals that don’t understand the importance of what school board elections do.”

Voter turnout for school board elections is drastically minimal, even compared to non-presidential elections years. Research shows that the April 5, 2022, school-board elections held in Oklahoma drew an average of 4 percent of voters, and in some communities turnout was even lower.

In contrast, the November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters, while the November 2020 elections, when the presidential race topped the ballot, attracted 69.34 percent of voters.

“In Lawton, one of our top 10 schools (by size), in 2022, the voter outcome was less than 1 percent,” Banning noted. “That has to stop. We need to get more people to the polls.”

Banning also noted that parents and community members are often asked to help stock teacher classrooms with basic supplies, even as schools are spending millions on unusually timed elections. Schools would not have to pay those costs if school-board races were placed on a general-election ballot.

“Why would we spend the $29 million that can be repurposed?” Banning asked.

And, he noted, the low turnout of the current school-board election system is clearly a factor in “how hard it is to unseat a school board member that doesn’t understand community standards.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

Maddison Farris Communications Manager, Independent Journalist

Maddison Farris

Communications Manager, Independent Journalist

Maddison Farris is an award-winning journalist and writer, and a former editor-in-chief of OSU’s student newspaper, The O’Colly. She is also a graduate of the NYC Semester in Journalism program at The King’s College in New York City, and holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Oklahoma State University.

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