Dan Snell has held the Office 2 seat on the Norman Public Schools Board of Education for more than two decades, but challenger and former district teacher Alex Ruggiers thinks it’s time for some new blood.
Ruggiers received 45.91 percent of the vote in the primary election, on Feb. 8, and Snell received about 33.53 percent.
The general election will take place Tuesday, April 5, with polls being open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Early voting will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on March 31 and April 1.
“I think a lot of people agree that a quarter of a century is long enough for any one person to hold a position,” Ruggiers, who currently works as a curriculum developer for the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Public Management, said. “With the way that myself and other teachers have been feeling about the board and our relationship with the school board, it really was just time that we start bringing in some fresh ideas.”
Snell, a retired OU history professor who was initially elected to the school board in 1997 and who has not faced a challenger since, says he is running for another term to maintain institutional knowledge on the board.
“The reason I’m running at this point is that we are going to have a discontinuity on the board,” Snell said. “I think the next three people will not run again. So it’s for institutional memory.”
Snell said he will also continue to advocate for special-needs funding, raise critical issues in the board’s yearly evaluation of the district superintendent, and support the district’s aviation academy.
“It gives direction to kids, starting in ninth grade, who might be interested in careers in aviation,” Snell said. “I envision more of these specializations. But the important thing about our vision for that and other job shadowing is we do want to keep people rooted in the traditional high school.”
If elected, Ruggiers wants to cut administrative spending, prioritize the hiring of additional special education teachers and counselors and restore community members’ confidence in the school board and district.
“One of the ways we can restore that trust is by putting a teacher on the school board, by being transparent, by having school board members show up in the buildings frequently, listening to the teachers and what they need and being available to the community so they can express their needs,” Ruggiers said. “Right now, the only surefire way to get a school board member to hear you is by showing up to a board meeting and speaking for two minutes and them not being able to respond. That’s not very productive. I’d rather we have school board members that are accessible to the public.”
‘It just felt like it was time to put a teacher on the school board’
Ruggiers said teachers in particular have lost trust in the district and school board.
“When we have a school board that ignored a vote of ‘no confidence’ against our superintendent, that doesn’t show our teachers that they’re listening and that they’re respecting what teachers want,” Ruggiers said. “It just felt like it was time to put a teacher on the school board that brings new perspective to our leadership in Norman.”
In 2020, 328 out of 480 voters within the Professional Educators of Norman cast a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Nick Migliorino, citing a number of issues with his leadership, particularly during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Typically, when you see that happen in a district, the school board does something about it,” Ruggiers said. “Usually a superintendent doesn’t last very long if two-thirds of the teachers that vote voted ‘no confidence’ in his ability or leadership. It was actually kind of surprising that just last week our school board renewed his contract again.”
Snell said the vote did not come from a majority of the district teachers but a majority of that particular organization’s members. He said there continues to be a rigorous evaluation process of the superintendent on all kinds of issues.
“There was, in fact, action, but it was in the evaluation of the superintendent, which is a personnel matter, so we can’t really talk about it too much,” Snell said. “We took it under advisement, and we were aware and are still aware that there are lots of teachers that were quite disappointed. But we’re not likely to discipline someone just because some teachers don’t like them.”
Learning gaps and teacher retention
Snell said he’s concerned about learning gaps students are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We really need to address [learning gaps] with reading specialists, math specialists and so on,” Snell said. “We need to address it as systematically as we can. We’ve used some of our COVID money in that direction. But you don’t want to commit to hiring people you can’t keep forever. We’ve tried to be careful about that and spent a lot on personal protective equipment.”
Snell acknowledged that this is a difficult time for teachers and students alike.
“As some people have said, this year is worse than all the others,” Snell said. “When you’re at home, you’re just at home. But now you want to make progress in your curriculum, and yet you are confronted with kids who are not necessarily up to speed. So that’s going to be a concern for quite a while.”
Ruggiers said every administrator and leader in the district should be addressing the issue of teacher retention.
“I think one of the biggest issues is that our district in Norman here has this kind of customer service model that they’re using, where they view every teacher as a provider of a good and treat students and parents as consumers,” Ruggiers said. “When you have a customer service model like that, it really disrespects and devalues what I believe education is, which is a true partnership between parents and students.”
Ruggiers believes the existing approach deters teachers from working in the district.
“When you reduce their calling to a simple transactional relationship, like our district does constantly, and when they use this customer service model, it turns people off and drives people away,” Ruggiers said.
Snell defended the district’s approach.
“By customer service training, it doesn’t mean the customer is always right. What it means is we have to listen carefully to everyone who brings up an issue with us. I think this has worked pretty well among frontline people like secretaries you meet when you first come in,” Snell said. “We are living in a school-choice society. Whether or not these recent bills pass, people feel free to go elsewhere. As our superintendent says, we want to be the choice because we have the best stuff and the best people. How you treat and interact with the public is an important thing.”
‘It’s important for libraries to keep the options open’
One area of common ground between the Norman school board candidates is their opposition to banning books from school libraries. SB 1142, authored by Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) and Rep. Justin Humphrey (R-Lane), would prohibit schools and school libraries from allowing or maintaining certain books, including any books that deal with sexual subjects or are of a “controversial nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of.”
“I think it’s a little weird,” Snell said. “There is already a process for parents to question the use of books in the curriculum and in the libraries. It involves review by teachers, librarians and parents. The school board is the ultimate decider on this sort of thing, and in my years on the school board we’ve never had a case come before us.”
Snell said the way to keep book offerings in check is for parents to get involved and raise concerns when they arise.
“In general, we say a book that you dislike may be important for someone else,” Snell said. “It’s important for libraries to keep the options open.”
Ruggiers said that Norman has historically been supportive of teaching books that have been banned by other districts.
“I am definitely very against banning books,” Ruggiers said. “I think we’re really committed to the idea of preparing students for college and professional life after high school. We can’t be sheltering them and trying to ban books that make them uncomfortable, because being uncomfortable is part of being an adult.”