© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oklahoma Board of Education meeting debuts randomized public comment procedures

State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks with reporters after the May 23, 2024 State Board of Education meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks with reporters after the May 23, 2024 State Board of Education meeting.

Before the May meeting, public commenters could sign up to speak on a first-come, first-served basis — often prompting people to camp out hours before meetings. Now, speakers can sign up the hour before the meeting starts and are selected through an online randomizer program.

Ten speakers were called to the podium for Thursday’s meeting. Of the ten, six were critical of State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ stances and leadership, two favored Walters, one asked the board for a better system to ban controversial books from schools, and one seventh grader voiced concerns about unqualified teachers and a lack of resources at her school.

According to the meeting’s agenda, the new procedures also allow Walters to extend the time limit of anyone’s comment period at his discretion and interrupt, terminate or postpone comments. While some speakers went slightly over the time limit, Walters did not intervene in anyone’s comment period.

The comment period was slated for the end of the meeting after a stacked executive session. Oklahoma Department of Education spokesperson Dan Isett said that was to enable Tulsa Public Schools officials — who give monthly performance updates to the board — to get back on the road in a timely manner.

After the meeting, Walters was asked what prompted the change, and he responded out-of-state, paid activists had been hijacking meetings. Asked for proof, he said he would share that information when he was ready.

A collection of postcards left by a public commenter for the board at a State Board of Education meeting on May 23, 2024. The front of the postcards referenced the death of Nex Benedict, a trans student at Owasso Public Schools.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
A collection of postcards left by a public commenter for the board at a State Board of Education meeting on May 23, 2024. The front of the postcards referenced the death of Nex Benedict, a trans student at Owasso Public Schools.

“You can go out there and look at all the signs that they have paid for and everything else, and why don’t you go ask them where they got the money from?” Walters said to a Tulsa World reporter who challenged the claims. “I haven’t heard the media asking questions about how these activists have tents that just get popped up, how they all come out here for days at a time and camp out to push other people out. It is very clear that we have paid protesters coming from out of state.”

While Walters did not name particular groups, two nonprofit organizations frequently attend the board meetings: Freedom Oklahoma and the Oklahoma chapter of Defense of Democracy. Both have been critical of Walters’ policies and rhetoric.

Freedom Oklahoma Executive Director Nicole McAfee responded to the comments in an email to StateImpact, saying the group is made up of concerned Oklahoma parents, students, educators and community members — not out-of-state activists.

“If the State Superintendent allowed everyone to speak, it would be made very clear to the board that the folks lined up outside are Oklahomans,” McAfee said. “There are tents because folks have had to show up in the cold and the rain and the intense sun, and we collectively pitch in to make sure one another [is] cared for. We don’t need to recruit out-of-state protesters, because we have a state full of folks trying to be heard, pleading with the board to take action that puts student well-being ahead of Ryan Walters’ personal, political agenda.”

Defense of Democracy Regional Director Erica Watkins said Walters' claims are false but expected, and he "simply refuses to accept" there are Oklahomans who disagree with him.

"It is blatantly obvious that Walters is limiting public comment because actual Oklahoma parents, educators and stakeholders are making the time to attend these meetings. We started 'camping out' so that we could actually speak on issues relating to public education and amplify the voices of educators and public school parents who are unable to attend these meetings, because they are intentionally held at a time and place that makes it hard to attend," Watkins said, in part. "(...) We live in Oklahoma. I'm pretty sure most of us have been to a college tailgate or camping. His claim that we put up one $40 pop-up tent that you can buy at Big Lots, Walmart, Sam's, or pretty much any store — is evidence that we are from 'out of state' is just as pathetic as his running of the department."

Embattled educators’ certificates on the line

During the meeting’s executive session, the board voted to suspend nine educators' teaching certifications and advance the processes of revoking nine other educators’ certifications.

The educators are accused of or under investigation for a range of allegations, including a Wewoka principal charged with inappropriately touching children, an Oklahoma City special education teacher fired for holding a child’s head to the floor and a Sapulpa coach charged with drug trafficking when he was found leaving campus with counterfeit prescription pills.

Of the 18 educators with certificates on the line at Thursday’s meeting, nine were involved in issues of a sexual nature. Walters vowed to continue going after teaching certificates of educators alleged or found to have committed sexual offenses.

He referenced a proposed administrative rule currently under review by the state legislature. If adopted, it would penalize districts that maintain active employment of teachers under investigation for certificate revocation if the investigation ends in certificate revocation.

“I appreciate [the board’s] effort on the rule that we have proposed to the legislature to give us more authority in going and removing these sexual predators immediately upon these types of accusations, so we’re going to continue to advocate for that at the Capitol,” Walters said. “We’re going to continue to work with [the board] to do all that we can as an agency to prevent that from happening, but then when, unfortunately, it happens, to hold those individuals accountable.”

The board also voted to schedule former Norman teacher Summer Boismier’s certification revocation hearing for June 27 — three days before it is set to expire.

In 2022, Boismier posted a QR code in her English classroom to the Books Unbanned page of the Brooklyn Public Library’s website. Boismier has sued Walters for defamation after the superintendent — who was at the time the State Secretary of Education and campaigning for his current position — made statements that she was “sexualizing our classrooms” and providing access to “pornographic material,” among other comments.

New OSDE money for Tulsa Public Schools’ summer school

Tulsa Public Schools also delivered its monthly performance update to the board.

TPS Superintendent Ebony Johnson said the district is continuing to take steps to address the three areas of improvement demanded by the board: higher literacy rates, science of reading training and getting low-performing schools off of the state’s list.

Johnson said the district completed its testing and is waiting for results on literacy scores. One hundred percent of elementary and secondary teachers and school leaders have completed science of reading training. After a recent accreditation review, TPS’s school deficiencies have been reduced from 96 to one — Johnson said the one deficiency was from a tornado drill that occurred too early in the school year.

“I’m looking forward to having the summer to do quite a bit of work with our team,” Johnson said. “We’re hitting the ground running, and I’m also looking forward to having a full year in the superintendency to really move in a more intentional way and efficient way.”

Johnson also previewed the district’s Ready. Set. Summer! program, which she said has enrolled 7,200 students so far in pre-k through eighth grade. Participants receive 20 days of instruction and field trips with transportation and two daily meals provided.

Walters informed the board at the beginning of the meeting his department is moving $180,000 from a literacy ambassador program to fund this year’s Ready. Set. Summer! He said an additional $220,000 will be allocated to TPS’s credit recovery boot camps, which are four-week remedial programs for high school students to catch up on required credits.

TPS Deputy Superintendent Kathy Dodd said the money will allow Ready. Set. Summer! participants to access intensive, targeted, small-group literacy instruction, and more than 1,600 high schoolers have enrolled in nearly 3,400 courses for the credit recovery boot camp.

“We’ve initiated a lot of change over the last eight months under Dr. Johnson’s leadership, and we have done it with a commitment for immediate results. But we’ve also done it with an eye for sustained change in the future,” Dodd said. “And we have worked very hard to redistribute resources, people, time and money to ensure that the work that we’ve done on these initiatives over that eight months has lasting change. So we definitely have gone fast, but our goal is to go far.”

* indicates required

Updated: May 28, 2024 at 12:05 PM CDT
This article was updated to include a response from Defense of Democracy Regional Director Erica Watkins.
Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content