For the second time in three months, school closure issues threaten trust in Aurora Lora, Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent.
Direct, and open expressions of distrust, not only from parents and community leaders, but from a city councilman and even one of the board members have put added pressure on Lora in recent weeks.
Those feelings among the public are still a live issue as the district starts into a new school year that started July 1.
But board members have vowed to get even more involved in the goals of the district and start thinking more about equity in giving resources according to need rather than mathematical equality from school to school.
Word leaked out only days before the Monday, June 26, board meeting that North Highland elementary school was being considered for closure and that it may be on the next board agenda.
Lack of previous public process on the matter combined with the news coming out as a leak caused a new public uproar.
In the board meeting, Lora claimed the closing was never solidly on the agenda, but the administration had been considering it.
Lora said they had “difficulty finding candidates that we thought were ready to walk into a challenging situation and be the right leader.”
“We wanted to make sure we had a contingency plan in place in case we did not find the right candidates,” Lora said about the quiet closure talk that had gone on among members of her cabinet and some members of the board.
She went on to say since word came out about the possible closure, there had been offers to help in the district, state and around the nation after news came out about the possible closure.
But several at the meeting weren’t buying that account.
One of them was Charles Henry, recently elected to the board.
Do not lie
“The first thing that we do not do, is we do not lie to the public,” said board member Charles Henry.
“It is truly unacceptable to wait until the last minute to inform the community that you are thinking about closing their school,” shouted John Pettis, Ward 7 Oklahoma City Councilman in a rare appearance during public comments.
“This was absolutely a conspiracy to absolutely attack this neighborhood and this school,” said community leader Steve Davis. “And we need to call it what it is.”
Davis is a candidate for Oklahoma House District 99.
A Facebook video Davis shot the day word leaked about the possible closure went viral.
And his comments to the board days later showed less heat, but were still strong.
“For some of the things that you say, you have to think that we’re fools,” said Davis at the board meeting.
He referred to the contradictions in what had been said to him by Kaye the week before that the closure was a certain thing compared to what Lora had just said in her public comments.
Davis ominously reminded the board that they would be approaching the public to vote for another bond issue in the future and it might not be so easy.
One speaker after another signed up ahead of time and spoke about how concerned they were to be involved in yet another school closing discussion.
Evelyn Lorenz, took the train from her retirement home in Dallas out of concern for the school where she was once the assistant principal.
“I was glad that the board members said where’s the equity because that was my one and only question: Where’s the equity? As opposed to being equal,” Lorenz told Free Press. “I’m going to hold them to that.”
Offers to help
Lora reported that since word came out about the possible closure, the district has been flooded with offers even from out of state.
“We’ve had a lot of people step up and offer help and assistance,” said Lora. “Several people … are now applying for the principal’s position.”
Most of the board members said they were happy to see so many in the community standing up for their school.
“I’m really glad to see all of the community joining us today,” said Vice Chair Gloria Torres.
Board member Rebecca Budd described the situation at North Highland as “the tip of the iceberg,” and pointed to many other schools in the district that were experiencing similar situations as North Highland.
“The one in March plus this one together, I think it just culminated it,” Henry told Free Press several days later. “Now, I think there’s some mistrust.”
In a conversation with Free Press the next day, Steve Davis seemed hopeful although still somewhat dumbfounded as to why Lora and Chief of Staff Rebecca Kaye would think that they could quietly close a school without consequences.
“I told Rebecca Budd the board member, this is the time for us to galvanize the parents and the community and business owners around this school,” said Davis.
“We capitalize on the momentum of the community,” Davis said. “That is really the key. We have some great momentum right now.”
He said he and Budd are working on a plan for marshalling interests from the public and local businesses to assist the district in making North Highland into a strong school.
March, then June
Twice in three months, Lora and her cabinet have found themselves embroiled in controversy over the issue of school closings.
After seeing the strong response, Lora backed off the idea adding that unless state funding changed dramatically they would have to close some schools in 2018-2019.
Then, June 21, new board member Rebecca Budd informed Oklahoma City Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis that the administration was planning to close North Highland Elementary, 8400 North Robinson Avenue, a school that has been struggling.
Pettis began to spread the word, which caused a growing public outcry against the closing.
By the board meeting Monday, June 26, Lora and Kaye had changed direction on a school closing once again.
Lora is on vacation and was not available for comment.
Kaye would not agree to an interview for this story.
The following video was shot at the end of the board meeting June 26.