The candidates for District 2 of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board, Lori Bowman and James McHenry, agree that increasing mental health resources in schools should be a top priority for the next board member.
They differ, however, on the ongoing implementation of the district’s Pathways to Greatness plan, which passed unanimously in 2019 and included new school attendance zones, the closure of 15 district schools, an adjustment in grade bands and changes to feeder patterns and school names.
The candidates spoke with NonDoc in the run-up to the election on April 6, which will determine who fills the District 2 position being vacated by current board member Rebecca Budd. The District 1 seat is also up for grabs on April 6, and the chairperson position is heading to a runoff the same date.
‘It’s going to take years to overcome the impact of COVID’
Lori Bowman is the owner of the nonprofit consulting firm Bowman Strategies in Oklahoma City and formerly served as a development and community relations officer for the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center at the University of Oklahoma. She also spent 10 years in D.C. as the director of federal government affairs for a pharmaceutical manufacturer and later served as a health policy advisor for former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas).
“Before I moved to Washington D.C., I got my master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University, and while I was there I actually specialized in education policy,” Bowman said. “Sometimes you have to adjust to what jobs are available. When I moved to Washington D.C., I started working in health care because that was the job available and I loved it. I really love all social policy.”
Bowman believes her time working on policy such as TANF, Medicaid and Social Security would benefit her as a school board member.
“I think my ability to understand complex policy issues will serve me well,” Bowman said. “I feel like I have a grasp of the public policy landscape in general, in that I can distill complex policy issues pretty quickly.”
James McHenry is a former contractor with the U.S. Postal Service and a community advocate, leading organizations such as the Parent Teacher Association, HOPE Center and other youth programs. He also ran for the OKCPS board in 2000.
McHenry said he is concerned with providing educators the resources they need to do their jobs.
“Teachers still don’t have the adequate tools they need to work with, and that’s unacceptable,” he said.
One of Bowman’s main concerns, especially amid the pandemic, is ensuring students have access to the mental health resources they need.
“First and foremost, we as a school board will need to address the learning loss and increased mental health needs that our students have as we recover from COVID-19,” Bowman said. “It’s going to take years to overcome the impact of COVID. Some of our kids are going to come back and be ahead because they were able to do things at home that they don’t get to do in the classroom. Then, we’re going to have other students who maybe haven’t engaged with a teacher in ten months. We don’t even know what we’re facing. So that’s my number one priority.”
McHenry is also particularly focused on mental health resources for students in the district.
“There aren’t enough counselors or mental health workers in the school system,” he said. “You have one counselor that has to go to three different schools a week. We’re spending money everywhere else, but not where it needs to be. We need to put a mental health counselor in each school, not only in high school but at all levels.”
Another part of McHenry’s platform is monitoring middle school and high school dropout rates more closely in order to provide students with the proper intervention.
“There’s not a lot being done to monitor the dropout for middle school and high school,” McHenry said. “We’re not keeping up with that and looking at what we can do to curve that.”
‘You don’t close schools down, you put resources in the building to try to help’
Bowman said the board will also have to continue to follow through on the Pathways to Greatness plan despite the pandemic.
“We need to ensure that our kids receive the very best resources for better outcomes in education. We were still trying to grapple with the implementation of Pathways, then COVID happens,” Bowman said. “We have to make good on the commitments we made during that process.”
She also said she would prioritize board accountability and providing good stewardship of tax dollars.
“The fiduciary responsibility of the school board is a big one and I think it’s important to be a school board member that is a good steward of the community resources,” Bowman said.
McHenry, however, has been critical of some of the aspects of Pathways to Greatness, particularly the closure of some neighborhood elementary schools.
“When the superintendent was hired on with the Pathway to Greatness, I did meet with him on two occasions and expressed my concerns about our school over here (with North Highland Elementary School). We were averaging about 450-460 kids in this neighborhood,” McHenry said.
He said he felt the school did not receive proper representation from their board member. On top of closing multiple schools, McHenry said he doesn’t feel the district plan for getting students in new schools was done well.
“This school has been a target for every superintendent we’ve ever had,” McHenry said. “You don’t close schools down, you put resources in the building to try to help.”
McHenry also thinks more needs to be done overall to ensure equity throughout the OKCPS district.
“The district needs to get more technology in low-performing areas of the schools. That’s something that’s not being done,” he said.
(Correction: This article was corrected at 9:35 a.m. on Friday, March 12, to clarify that Lori Bowman formerly served as a development and community relations officer for the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center at the University of Oklahoma.)