Ray Carter | December 20, 2019

Tulsa Public Schools accused of breaking state law

Ray Carter

The State Board of Education voted Thursday to send a charter-school application back to the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) district and urged the district to vote on the application within 30 days. That action was taken after charter supporters said Tulsa officials have violated state law and the district’s own policies.

“It’s clear Tulsa needs to take action,” said board member Kurt Bollenbach. “They need to have a public hearing.”

Oklahoma law requires that traditional school districts “shall either accept or reject” sponsorship of a charter school within 90 days of receipt of an application. The charter school applicant is then allowed to submit a revised application, and the proposed sponsor is required to “accept or reject the revised application” within 30 days of receipt.

In instances where a proposed sponsor has twice rejected an application, a charter school can then appeal the decision to the State Board of Education, which can sponsor the charter school.

But members of the State Board of Education were told that Tulsa Public Schools has not complied with that law and twice rejected the Harlow Creek Elementary charter-school application without a public hearing or vote on the issue.

Attorney Bill Hickman, who represented Harlow Creek Elementary backers, said charter organizers submitted an initial application to the Tulsa district in March.

“The denial, just to be clear, was just a written one-page letter from an administrator,” Hickman said. “It never went to the Tulsa Public Schools board for action.”

Based on that letter, the application was revised, but charter supporters received a second one-page letter of denial in August.

“The Tulsa Public School Board never took action on the application,” Hickman said.

When Harlow officials asked when their application would receive consideration from the district school board, Hickman said they were “advised by the administrator that unless she was recommending approval, it would not go to the TPS board and that she had the authority to make the denial on her own.”

Hickman noted he has represented three charter school appeals before the State Board of Education and has “handled numerous charter school applications.”

“This is the first district that has handled a charter-school application the way that TPS has handled it, first time I’ve ever had a charter-school application where the board of education did not conduct one public hearing, did not hear the matter or vote on it,” Hickman said.

Brad Clark, general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Education, said Tulsa officials have contended they do not have to act in public to reject a charter-school application, and must vote in public only to approve an application. Clark said the Tulsa district’s own policy undercuts that claim.

“Tulsa Public Schools has a policy,” Clark said. “We’ve gone through that. I do not read the policy as they do. They can interpret that, respectfully, at the local level, but I am advising this body I do not believe that their policy allows what has been done. I believe their policy is clear in saying that the written review of each proposal will lead to a written report that will be submitted with a recommendation to the board. The next sentence just beyond that says the board shall either accept or reject the charter school application. In my opinion, that’s quite clear.”

Hickman said Tulsa Public Schools provided Harlow Creek supporters a third letter, sent in the 48 hours prior to the State Board of Education hearing, that provided review rubrics for the first time.

“How many of you are educators?” Hickman said. “Do you give a student, before they have an assignment, the evaluation rubrics so they know what the rubric is and how to comply? Yes! That’s Education 101. They did not do that with my client. A good process, from my experience, and I’ve done most of these in the state of Oklahoma, is after the initial application is finished, you sit down with the applicant and you give them their review rubric from the initial applicant and say, ‘Here are the comments. Here were your weaknesses.’ We did not get those initial application reviews. We worked completely blindly in the dark trying to address comments from a one-page letter, both times, from the administrator who denied us. Then, on the eve of this deal, we get a detailed letter from the superintendent adding things to the grounds for the denial.”

He said Tulsa’s process “has been patently unfair to my client in multiple ways.”

However, members of the State Board of Education worried they may be legally required to wait until a local district has rejected a charter application in open meeting before taking up an appeal.

Bollenbach indicated that charter backers may have to pursue legal action against Tulsa Public Schools.

“There are ways to force a governing body to take action as set forth in statutes or in policies,” Bollenbach said.

One possible course of action is for Harlow Creek backers to pursue a writ of mandamus, which is a court order that requires a government official to properly fulfill official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.

But Hickman noted that charter backers have already spent thousands on the process and have fully complied with the law.

“The potential that we may have to go file for a mandamus at writ from a court to force them to follow the law and policy, in my opinion, it’s patently unfair,” Hickman said.

The State Board of Education voted to send the charter application back to Tulsa, telling the district to comply with state law and vote on the application in a public hearing within 30 days of receipt, as required by state law.

But some officials worry the Tulsa district’s actions may encourage other government bodies to evade transparency laws.

“There are many reasons why we do not make these kinds of decisions behind closed doors, especially that affect communities,” said Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, an organization that works to increase parent awareness of educational choices. “The fact that TPS has developed a policy, in which it can deny a charter application behind closed doors without bringing it to a public meeting of the TPS school board, is extremely troublesome. It can also set an alarming precedent for districts to abuse that power. These kinds of decisions need to be made in a public meeting where organizations can be held accountable for the decisions and for their reasoning.”

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.

Loading Next