The chairperson seat of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education is up for election with incumbent OKCPS chairperson Paula Lewis, incumbent District 1 board member Charles Henry and 50-year educator and former board member Wilfredo Santos Rivera on the primary ballot.
An attorney and critic of current OKCPS leadership, Henry did not respond to multiple interview requests from NonDoc prior to the publication of this article.
The primary election will take place Tuesday, Feb. 9, with a general election set for April 6 if no single candidate receives more than 50 percent of the Feb. 9 vote. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the primary election is Feb 2.
The OKCPS chairperson seat, which carries a four-year term, has been filled by Lewis since 2016. An occupational therapist, Lewis served as the District 4 board member for a year before running for and winning her current position.
Lewis thinks her experience on the OKCPS board is valuable to the board and district, especially in the midst of a pandemic. She also believes stability in the district’s administration and leadership is important during this time. Lewis said OKCPS had seen around 22 superintendents in 20 years before Sean McDaniel took the position in July 2018.
“I think stability and institutional knowledge and experience sitting during this pandemic is probably the thing that’s keeping the district OK,” Lewis said. “McDaniel has been here for two and a half years, his cabinet has been steady for a year and a half. We’ve had a fairly stable board too, and I feel that has allowed us to make big moves with facilities management, budget utilization and stronger policy.”
Rivera spent time on the OKCPS board himself for District 7 from 2006 to 2010 and has 50 years as an educator under his belt. Rivera said his additional experience as former commissioner of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission ties into the board position perfectly.
“Education is a human right,” Rivera said. “My mission in life is, has been and will continue to be the pursuit of excellence in education.”
Video from a recent OKCPS chairperson candidate forum is embedded at the end of this article.
‘Providing access to what that kid needs’
Lewis said she is proud of the work she has participated in as OKCPS chairperson for the past four years, including the Pathways to Greatness project, the Embrace OKC compact, lives-treaming board meetings for the public and providing three years of audits and budgets on the district website.
“We’re really trying to gather up more information. But there’s still work to be done,” Lewis said. “One of the reasons I want to run is that we need to get really good at responding to the information now. We do respond, but I don’t think we do it in a way that makes people and groups feel heard. I think we have some more room to work on customer service, for lack of a better word.”
Lewis said the district also has work to do regarding equity, implicit bias and diversity in leadership.
“We passed an equity policy under my leadership. (Board member) Ruth Veales was very instrumental in that,” she said. “Now the board policy reads that anything we do has to go through the equity lens. We have to look at who this is going to help, and if it helps this group, who’s it going to hurt? If it hurts a group, what are we going to do about that?”
Lewis said board members should receive continued training in these areas in order to be more responsive to the needs to the entire district.
“The concept of equity is removing barriers and providing access to what that kid needs,” Lewis said. “Our board should have continued equity training. Our board should have continued training on implicit biases and systemic racism so that we have that conversation so when we’re talking about passing policy, because policy is what’s going to lead the district, the policy is very sensitive to where we’re struggling in those areas.”
Rivera identified the state gap in academic achievement as a problem worth addressing, as well as a lack of leadership.
“The children are not failing the system, the system is failing the children,” Rivera said. “In my experience in Oklahoma City in the last 30 years, I have witnessed first hand how the system is unable to reduce the gap between the high achievers and low academic achievers. If you reduce that gap, then you’ll make some progress.”
He said more community engagement could help address this issue.
“Community engagement, where the whole community is engaged — the business community, the neighborhood community and all the institutions that education are critical to. Education is critical for our future,” Rivera said. “I believe in the public education system, and I think we have to improve it so it functions well, and I think we have to bring about the change that the children need.”
‘Priority number one is always the safety of the children’
Rivera said he believes 2021 offers a moment of change and that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the education system to address a changing education climate.
“Half of the teachers want in-person, half of the teachers want distance. There’s a lot of chaos going on, not only at the local level, but at the federal level and state level,” Rivera said. “What we need is leadership. We have a lack of leadership.”
He said the school district needs to ensure a healthy environment for students as well as transparency surrounding COVID-19 decision making.
“Priority No. 1 is always the safety of the children,” Rivera said.
When asked about transparency surrounding data points for COVID decision making, Lewis said there’s always room for improvement.
“We’re using the county’s data points. And I’ve heard the same things, that we’re not being transparent, but it really is pushing it back to the county. When we say we’re going based on the numbers, we’re going based on the county’s numbers,” Lewis said. “We still really have to go off of what the county says and the State Board (of Education) recommendation.”
She said sticking to the county’s numbers and recommendation plan is the best course of action, especially when the OKCPS community is so split on whether to hold virtual or traditional classes.
“We’re a 50/50 split. Our teachers were surveyed, and I think it was 51 percent that said they wanted to go back and 49 percent wanted to stay out,” Lewis said. “There’s not an easy answer there. I won’t even say either one of those groups is right or wrong because they have valid points on each side, but it’s really hard to sit in the middle.”
She said around 75 percent of parents and students have surveyed in favor of returning to the classroom.
“That’s kind of a hard line, which is why we’ve decided, and (McDaniel’s) recommendation has been, to stick with the numbers. If the numbers say this and we’re following this plan, then this is what we’re doing,” Lewis said.
She said another focus regarding the pandemic will have to be ensuring that the district is meeting students’ mental health needs.
“We’re committed to addressing mental wellness. We don’t want to talk about our kids having mental health issues now, we want to talk about how we’re going to keep them mentally well all the way through their senior year,” Lewis said. “With the pandemic, we want to run another assessment because we’re afraid the pandemic has changed what we were working toward and that what kids have faced in the past year is going to change our data. We want evidence based practices that are for the data.”
Henry wants to hold school board accountable
Incumbent District 1 board member Charles Henry will also be on the primary ballot for the chairperson position. He has served in his current position since 2017.
According to Henry’s campaign website, he is running to “make the school board accountable to the people and to create a successful learning environment that will benefit all OKCPS students in reaching their full potential.”
His platform includes a safer return to school plan, closing the performance gap between lower and higher performing schools and creating an advisory board of OKCPS parents, teachers and community workers to hold the school board accountable.
Henry has been critical of the school board’s current leadership. In 2019, Henry and the OKC-Northeast Academy Alumni organization sought an injunction against chairwoman Paula Lewis, Superintendent Sean McDaniel and general counsel Jessica Sherrill over the renaming of Northeast Academy to Classen School of Advanced Studies at Northeast. The legal dispute also included a temporary restraining order against Lewis and McDaniel.
During the saga, McDaniel also filed a formal complaint with the board against Henry, saying his demand to review all student applications to Classen SAS violated federal law.
Urban League of Greater Oklahoma OKCPS chairperson candidate forum
(Correction: This article was updated at 1:20 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, to clarify the legal dispute between Henry and OKCPS leaders.)