Litigators live for the moment when a witness “opens the door” to cross examination on issues the attorney could not raise before they were mentioned. But it is unusual for such a tactic to be employed at the beginning of an Oklahoma City Public Schools board meeting, especially when everyone knows the evening is bound to be acrimonious.
That’s what happened at the OKCPS board meeting Monday, June 10. As soon as OKCPS chief of staff Rebecca Kaye completed her presentation on preparations for the next school year, board member Charles Henry, an attorney, cited some of Kaye’s words as the grounds for raising a tense issue: the name of Classen School of Advanced Studies High School, which will be moving into the Northeast Academy building. Some alumni of Northeast want the school to be called Northeast Classen SAS, while some alumni and parents of Classen SAS argue the existing name carries weight with nationally renowned universities. They believe the proposed “Classen SAS High School at Northeast” name better preserves the branding of the district’s flagship application school.
As I sat in the audience, I thought the ensuing anger was the predictable result of the board’s expansion of the Pathways to Greatness plan beyond the necessary pain of school closures and into an effort to advance data-driven governance. In addition to unpredicted challenges of dealing with their computer system’s recent hacking, the need to take over Seeworth Academy and the need to address graduates’ college remediation rates, OKCPS is also reorganizing its administration.
On the other hand, hope for a compromise emerged during the evening, and maybe the board will agree to have more robust conversations about the Classen SAS and Northeast merger, as well as our highest-challenge schools.
Tensions flare on Henry rhetoric, parent’s ‘school shooting’ tweet
When Henry launched his cross-examination, board Chairwoman Paula Lewis quickly cut him off — saying his issue was not on the agenda — and called a recess. Regarding the legal technicalities, either Henry or the OKCPS board attorney Jessica Sherrill, who ruled against him, might have been right, but I first thought that Lewis could have allowed more discussion of the issue which was on most everyone’s mind. She could have approved Henry’s request that board comments be moved up the agenda so the debate could proceed.
Before long, another attorney, a Classen parent named Cameron Spradling, threw even more gasoline on the fire. Lewis again recessed the meeting as the rhetoric grew threatening. Ahead of the meeting, Spradling had been issuing tweets such as:
This is more serious. Imagine a racially motivated school shooting of the new kids from @ClassenSASOKC as a result of @henryokcpsboard dangerous rhetoric … justified by some nut-job because Henry was a board member of @OKCPS. @OKCPS Legal Dept. needs to get on this now! https://t.co/d6jLBn8Dfv
— Cameron Spradling (@CamSpradling) June 9, 2019
He said “more likely than not” a white supremacist will carry out a school shooting because of inciting rhetoric from the board. He didn’t call any board members by name, but anyone on Twitter can see he’s had complaints about @henryokcpsboard .
— Nuria Martinez-Keel (@KarateNuria) June 11, 2019
Fortunately, the newspaper gave more coverage to the constructive comments of Terry Fife, a 1971 graduate of the then newly-integrated Northeast Academy and the parent of a Classen SAS graduate. Fife praised her experience in the desegregated Northeast and said “combining the names of the two schools would ‘go a long way in progress for the community.'”
“I know the value of the education from Classen SAS — it’s a world-class school,” Fife advised. “I think it will bring something to the neighborhood, but right now there has to be some, I think, compromise, and I know you recognize that. I think we have the opportunity for a small and significant win-win to have both names, Northeast Classen.”
What do students get out of the adult blame game?
Amidst flaring tensions about the Classen SAS High School relocation to Northeast, the district released a 22-page set of renderings (embedded below) that shows Northeast symbols displayed prominently inside and outside of the school and on street signs. Tributes such as “Legacy, 1936 to 2019, Northeast Academy for Health Science and Engineering” can be seen on doorways, the basketball court, halls and walls, which will also include historic photographs of alumni. I will leave it to the community to judge whether this is enough of a tribute, but it clearly represents a sincere and significant effort to bestow respect and bridge differences.
As usual, I go back and forth in evaluating the P2G process, but my fears are growing. I worry that the plans need a rigorous cross-examination. But I see no evidence that research, the professional judgments of educators, or the insights of patrons were properly respected during the planning stage. Once again, the people process of school improvement seems to have been treated as an arithmetic problem.
Regardless of whether patrons are satisfied by the efforts to bestow respect on Northeast, two things must be kept in mind. First, OKCS Superintendent Sean McDaniel’s search for community partners — as well as his commitment to Embrace OKC and students’ mental health — have been huge. Hopefully, the ultimate legacy of P2G will be to complement these priorities, not overshadow them.
Second, those of us who believe mistakes were made must be constructive and not add to the district’s already long list of serious challenges. What will our future generation gain if adults win the blame game but lose sight of the issues facing students?