Ray Carter | February 15, 2021

Schools use parents’ tax dollars to fight pro-parent bill

Ray Carter

Fed up with local school boards that have been unresponsive to parental requests for full-time, in-person student instruction, parents across Oklahoma have urged state lawmakers to change Oklahoma law to allow recall elections for school-board members.

While parents anticipated opposition to that effort, few expected to have their own education taxes diverted from the classroom to lobbying efforts in opposition to recall elections that would empower those same parents.

“That’s actually really shocking that our tax dollars are paying to fight us,” said Danica Norman, a parent in the Owasso school district. “That is mind-blowing.”

“It is ridiculous,” said Matt Thompson, a parent in the Deer Creek district.

At the Oklahoma Legislature, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) has been the leading public opponent of Senate Bill 210, which would allow for recall elections of school-board members under certain circumstances.

The OSSBA is, effectively, a taxpayer-funded entity, although it is technically considered a private organization. The OSSBA is funded with payments from its member school districts, which are taxpayer-funded and pay OSSBA dues from school budgets. In exchange for those payments, the OSSBA provides schools with services that include lobbying at the Oklahoma Capitol.

Thus, parents are paying taxes to school districts that then effectively use those taxes to oppose parents’ efforts to increase parental influence in school districts.

In its public position statements, the OSSBA says it will fight for “protection against recall” for school-board members and promote efforts to “minimize liability of individual school board members.”

In a Feb. 1 legislative alert, the OSSBA declared that recall elections “take away time and resources from the most important focus of a school board member: the students.”

Yet one district shows how the OSSBA’s anti-recall lobbying may potentially protect not students, but school-board members who turn a blind eye to reported sexual abuse of students.

In 2020, the State Board of Education placed Oologah-Talala Public Schools district on probationary accreditation status and publicly censured the Oologah-Talala board of education and the school’s superintendent “for your roles in contributing to a school culture in which student complaints were treated dismissively, even while five District teachers have faced the loss of their certification following allegations of sexualized misconduct with students.”

A lawsuit has been filed against Oologah-Talala Public Schools on behalf of two female students. Among the claims stated in the lawsuit is that Oologah-Talala “failed to provide its students an environment free of a sexual predator.”

Among the five Oologah-Talala staff members accused of sexual misconduct with students was teacher and coach Trent Winters, who was accused of making numerous sexual comments to female students, including one instance where he “unintentionally” made contact with a student’s breasts and reportedly said, “You liked that didn’t you?” When the student said she did not, Winters reportedly replied, “There is more of that where that came from.”

The lawsuit accuses Oologah-Talala of “failing to investigate Winters properly, before and after these referenced allegations,” states that the school district “hired Winters with knowledge that he had been previously accused of sexual misconduct and harassment of students at his prior employment,” and says that “Winter’s sexual misconduct and harassment of Plaintiffs continued after OTPS had actual notice of Winters’ misconduct.”

As a member of OSSBA, Oologah-Talala Public Schools’ taxpayer funds can help partially fund efforts to kill the recall-election legislation that would otherwise allow parents to forcibly remove members of that district’s board.

Thompson, the Deer Creek parent, works in human resources and, as part of that profession, is involved in the background-check process for many large companies.

“I can tell you that anybody else, in any other line of work, if they were caught to have a background sex-offender check not clear, the people who allowed that to happen would all be held accountable, which could lead to them being fired,” Thompson said. “That’s just how it is.”

But under current law in Oklahoma, school board members who fail to implement appropriate policies to prevent the hiring of sex offenders in schools, or fail to remove reported sex offenders from school settings, do not face automatic removal without individual criminal prosecution and conviction. Those board members may even retain their positions for several more years before facing the voters again.

That’s one of several reasons parents say recall elections should be allowed for school-board members. Under current law, Thompson noted parents have little power even in extreme situations such as Oologah-Talala.

“We can’t do anything,” Thompson said. “We can’t get those people to not show up at our building anymore because they have the power to just keep making decisions.”

In its argument against Senate Bill 210, the OSSBA declared that school-board elections “are accountability in action” and that parents “have the opportunity to choose new board members or run for office when a board member’s term is up.”

The OSSBA also argued that school board members “must focus on students, not what is popular. Governance shouldn’t be a popularity contest, and board members shouldn’t face a recall election for making tough decisions.”

But critics note that school-board members’ terms can run as long as five years, and many board members have been elected with little real public support, due in part to the irregular dates on which school-board elections are conducted.

In this month’s school-board elections, blogger Michael Bates noted that a multi-candidate race in the Tulsa school district—one of Oklahoma’s largest—involved just 379 out of 15,770 eligible voters, or 2.4 percent of those eligible to participate. The winner received just 201 votes—meaning the school-board member was seated with the support of only 1.2 percent of voters in the district.

Critics also note the “tough decisions” touted by the OSSBA have involved school closures that experts say are creating significant loss of academic learning and serious emotional-and-social harm to students, and that those closures have occurred even as surrounding districts with similar demographics have successfully reopened for full-time instruction.

In the worst instances, like Oologah-Talala Public Schools, critics note the decisions made by school-board members can have even worse, lifelong consequences for students.

The OSSBA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While school districts may use parents’ own tax dollars to fight efforts that would provide parents with greater influence in local schools, Norman said that will not stop families from advocating for their children.

“The parents that are involved, that are upset with the board, that are fighting against the board, are going to continue to seek out solutions,” Norman said. “So if they continue to bow up against us, it doesn’t matter. Parents are going to find a way to get a solution.”

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.

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