The local retail politics of school board races is more animated than usual in Oklahoma City Public Schools this year. Eleven candidates are running for three seats on the district’s board.
Ten of those candidates responded to questions Monday night in a forum at District House in the Plaza District in front of a crowd of about 75.
Candidates answered questions about discipline, current superintendent Aurora Lora, charter schools, community outreach and teacher support.
The forum was organized by The Oklahoman and moderated by one of their reporters, Ben Felder. Candidates answered the same questions in a short time frame, but it was not a debate.
The field of 11 candidates is unusual for the district compared to the last decade. In the past, some seats have been won simply by one person filing for an open position.
But this time interest in OKCPS is high. Five are running for chair, which is a general seat, three for District 1 and another three for District 2, both of which are on the north side of the district.
Information about current members, maps of election districts and schools included in the districts can be found HERE.
Four of the five candidates for chair were present in the first hour devoted to them and then all six candidates for the geographic districts were asked similar questions in the second hour.
Candidates for chair are:
- Paula Lewis (current District 4 member)
- Stan Hupfeld
- Wilfredo Santos Rivera
- Gregory Wyatt (not present for the forum)
- Bianca Rose
Candidates for District 1, in the far north end of the district just below Memorial Road are:
- Nathan Shirley
- Cheryl Poole
- Charles Henry
Candidates for District 2 including the lower half of The Village, Nichols Hills and Penn Square Mall are:
- Justin Ellis (incumbent)
- Rebecca Budd
- Nick Singer
The 11 candidates answered questions from the moderator for two hours. This is only a sampling of their answers on some of the biggest topics of discussion in OKCPS.
All the candidates agreed that the district cannot “suspend their way to success.”
Wilfredo Santos Rivera said that the district was making a big mistake by trying to “overpower” the students and their parents. “It’s a system based on control, and we need to change that model,” Rivera said. He argued there should be a “paradigm shift” in how the district relates to those it serves.
Children who “come from hard places” will often act out from hunger, pain or mental illness and those dynamics need to be understood according to Paula Lewis.
The district 1 and district 2 candidates had far more to say about discipline, especially suspensions.
Nick Singer talked about being in the Big Brother/Big Sister program in Oklahoma City. His “little brother was what you could call a bad kid.” He said it was a constant struggle for children like his “little brother” because too often the discipline system “turns a lot of kids into footballs where they are just moved around.” He argued that there is “not an age where it is OK to give up on a child.”
Most of the candidates talked about the need to support teachers in the classroom so that disruptive students did not stall out the education. And most seemed to agree that simply sending a child home does not produce an education for them.
Charles Henry, whose children are in KIPP charter school, called for more in-school suspension programs and off-site suspension programs where disruptive students’ needs could be assessed and addressed without causing them to lose time in their learning process.
Supt Aurora Lora
Aurora Lora is the district’s 11th superintendent since the year 2000. She came to OKCPS as associate superintendent in the administration of Rob Neu the last superintendent who left after only 21 months.
And so, with such a rapid rotation in the leadership of the district a question about how to evaluate the superintendent and support her drew some thoughtful comments.
Stanley Hupfeld said “we are blessed to have one who…wants to be here, and… is a skilled educator, and…, has got some really good ideas about how to move the district forward.”
He and Lewis both focused their comments on the importance of having clear goals for the superintendent and then following up with a clear evaluation.
Lewis called for “measurable and achievable quarterly assessments” to maintain accountability.
Several other candidates throughout the evening made similar expressions of gratitude for Lora.
Rivera was the only one who took a clear position against Lora. He flatly stated, “I think this job is too big for her.”
Previous Supt. Neu kept his home in Seattle, Washington where his family stayed during his tenure in OKCPS, commuting between there and Oklahoma City.
But, Lora has purchased a home in the metro and is quick to say that she wants to stay and see the district thrive over time.
Most of the other candidates had variations on the same theme that charters are already an important part of the educational process in the district and so could be a good thing with the right approach of the board.
Several took a stand that charters should be evaluated by the district the same way that they evaluate its traditional schools.
District 2 incumbent Justin Ellis said, “I wish things were doing so well that we didn’t have to have charter schools.” He said, “There’s a time and place for every one of our charters – the successful ones.”
Ellis pointed out that there is one charter in OKCPS that “is No. 2 in the country, and then we have three that are in the top 20. But then, there are some bad ones.”
He praised the district for now having a new executive director to oversee the 11 charters currently operating in the district.
But then he said, “What if we had such a good education in all of our schools that we didn’t even need charters. That should be our main goal so that we don’t leave any student behind.”
Except for Rivera’s dismissal of charters as “just another type of segregation,” Singer made the most negative comments about charters.
He said that he has “a great deal of skepticism and concern about charters.”
“Every child needs a great education,” said Singer, “and so when you pick a few good schools and leave a lot of other one’s behind, I find that concerning.”
Singer said, “You shouldn’t have to win a lottery to have a good education.” Some charters in OKCPS take students within their collection boundary first and then hold a lottery to choose who fills in the remaining spaces.
All candidates were clear that board members should reach out to the community OKCPS serves.
But how to do that seemed to fall along generational lines among the candidates.
Candidates who are moving toward their senior years favored in-person contact and physical presence of board members to facilitate a connection with the community.
Candidates who were younger talked about having their email and phone numbers readily available for anyone to contact them. At least a couple of them said they have their cellphone number on their campaign literature already.
Incumbents Ellis and Lewis emphasized how important it was to reach out even beyond the community to the legislature to lobby for support, especially since the legislature cut millions from the OKCPS budget this year.
The bulk of the discussion about supporting current teachers and recruiting teachers in the future centered on the low financial support the state gives in teacher pay.
All 11 candidates agreed in some way that an increase in pay was going to have to happen to stop the best teachers from leaving and to increase recruitment of good teachers.
District 1 candidate Cheryl Poole has the most years of service in OKCPS classrooms of the field of candidates. It isn’t just a matter of pay, which is important, but morale “starts with the principals and assistant principals,” Poole said. “We have to work to hire quality teachers.”
She said that teachers will stay and even want to come into a school where “the climate is good” and teachers are respected for the professionals that they are.
District 2 candidate Rebecca Budd is a regular volunteer in one OKCPS elementary and has been visiting several schools since she announced her candidacy.
“Most concerning for me is that in one of our best-performing schools the principal confided in me that for the first time she is worried about how many of her staff are going leave at the end of this year,” Budd said.
“Because it’s the job. It’s not the kids. It’s the busses arriving late in the morning. It’s not having workbooks to go along with everyday math and having to make your own assignment. It’s having rations on copies. It’s having to get donations of paper,” said Budd.
She also raised the issue of substitutes. Because teachers are around someone who is sick nearly every day, eventually they get sick, too. There is not enough money for substitutes.
“When a teacher is missing, another classroom will have to absorb that absent teacher’s classroom,” said Budd.
Finances in the district are a factor that isn’t often mentioned, Budd said.
Budd and others pointed out that board members need to lobby the legislature and tell the story of how education in OKCPS is being disrupted due to lower financial resources.