Historic Seminole Charter School Wins Approval from State Board of Education

January 26, 2017

Jay Chilton

OKLAHOMA CITY – After a contentious hearing and a unanimous vote by the State Board of Education, a new charter school is coming to Seminole. It will open its doors in the fall for grades 11 and 12, and within three years, the school will expand to pre-K through 12 and will serve as many as 700 students when complete. The Academy of Seminole will focus on classical studies at the elementary and middle school level and emphasize math and science during the students’ high school years in preparation for college or technology training programs.

The school will hold classes on the campus of Seminole State College and is expected to offer concurrent enrollment for its students to earn college credit while attending the high school.

Paul Campbell, CEO of Enviro Systems Inc., filed the paperwork proposing the school on Aug. 23, 2016, in an effort to make the area more attractive to potential recruits for his company that manufactures environmental control systems for business, commercial and military aircraft. Some engineers approached by Campbell in an effort to recruit them to come to Seminole have declined, citing a perceived poor school system as a reason.

The emergence of the Academy comes in the wake of two contentious bond proposals that were defeated by local voters. The first, a $19.61 million plan to build a new high school east of the city earned 47.7 percent approval. The second, an idea to renovate the 85-year-old art deco high school in the middle of town earned just 20.7 percent consent on the same day that Campbell filed his charter school plan with the school board. A vote of 60 percent approval was required for either bond measure to pass.

Seminole High School now holds classes in a former grocery store since the school district was informed that the original high school building was deemed unfit for human occupation.

After two denials of the charter proposal by the Seminole School Board – on Oct. 13, 2016, and again on Dec. 5 – the issue proceeded to the state Board of Education, which approved the petition on an unanimous 7-0 vote. The state School Board will act as the charter school’s sponsor.

Nearly 100 parents and individuals wearing blue “Vote Yes” T-shirts backing the charter school’s creation packed the halls of the education department’s first floor in a show of local support. During his presentation to the board, Campbell thanked the supporters for taking time off work or away from family responsibilities to drive the 65 miles from Seminole to the Capitol on a weekday morning.

Seminole Board of Education President Jack Cadenhead has been a vocal critic of the charter school plan, calling it an attack on the school district, and actively lobbied the state Board to reject the appeal. When providing his reasons why he and the other members of the Seminole Board of Education unanimously denied the application twice and remain opposed to the Academy’s creation, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister asked him about a split between the Seminole Board and the former interim superintendent.

“I’d like to read you this letter,” Hofmeister said. “He says, ‘To whom it may concern, I was interim superintendent for Seminole Public Schools for the 2015-16 school year. During that time, unfortunately our high school was deemed unsafe for class instruction work, and we had to move our kids to a call center that was a converted grocery store. The facility situation and divisive school board have been well documented. Both have left parents frustrated and despondent due to this toxic environment. The students and parents are in desperate need of an option. I believe that option should be the proposed Academy of Seminole by Advance Rural Education that is being applied for. ‘Sincerely, Bill Weldon.’”

Cadenhead said he didn’t want to offend anyone with his remarks concerning Weldon because of Mr. Weldon’s untimely death on Jan. 10 of this year. However, Cadenhead said that Weldon was dissatisfied that he was not hired permanently by Seminole Schools.

“So, you believe there’s a bias here (in the letter)?” Hofmeister asked.

“Yes,” he responded.

Campbell, who also serves as chairman of Advance Rural Education – the nonprofit organization created to lead the effort for the charter school – was glad for the Board’s decision and anxious to prepare the school to receive students. The school will begin serving students in grades 11 and 12 this fall and increase its offering in subsequent years.

“Today’s an historic day for kids,” Campbell said, following the vote. “Really a historic day for rural kids, and being a guy that grew up in rural Kentucky, I know the importance of education to be able to continue your life in a successful way.

“For us to be able to bring a world-class education system into Seminole, I think it’s going to transform a lot of lives.

“To get a 7-0 vote, it’s historic in a lot of ways. Getting a unanimous vote just proves that the vision that we’ve put together is a compelling one.”

The Academy will be only the second charter school to open outside the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas under a law passed in 2015 allowing charter schools to expand into rural communities. It will be the first such school to originate under the law. School officials hope to have approximately 60 juniors and seniors attending the school this fall.