Trent Smith
State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies uses the public comment portion of a meeting on Thursday, April 28, 2022 to express concerns regarding the lack of a new business section on meeting agendas. (Megan Prather)

Frustration was apparent this morning as State Board of Education members Jennifer Monies and Trent Smith used the public comment section of the board’s monthly meeting to express concerns about the management of those meetings.

Specifically, they mentioned certain items not being placed on meeting agendas even though board members had requested they be discussed, the lack of a “new business” section on meeting agendas and the process of calling for special meetings.

While Monies’ concerns were general, Smith also took particular issue with an item relating to Stillwater Public Schools’ bathroom policy not being placed on today’s agenda after he had requested it.

As the state superintendent of public instruction, Joy Hofmeister is currently the chairwoman of the board and is in charge of setting the board’s meeting agendas.

“I am speaking, mostly, because the chair of this board has complete control, ultimately, over what is set on this agenda, and I don’t think that’s right,” Monies said. “It’s not written in statute or rule and it’s been the longstanding practice of this board, something I believe that was lamented from our own state superintendent when she was on this board.”

Monies said her frustrations were more about the process than about any specific issue. She said that new business — the section of the meeting that allows board members to introduce new topics — has been missing from the agenda for about a year.

“The chair has refused to add new business back onto this meeting, despite multiple requests to do so. I’m not an attorney, but I believe it is common practice, and in state statute, that new business should be allowed to be on the meeting, which is why we’re talking about this during public comment instead of new business,” Monies said. “It’s also unclear if we can call a special board meeting on any topic, despite having statutory authority to do so, because there are restrictions on what us as a board can talk about outside of an open meeting.”

After the meeting, Monies told reporters that is is her understanding that new business was originally removed from agendas when meetings were taking place virtually owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There was something about having virtual meetings during COVID that new business was allowed to be removed and it was never restored,” Monies said.

During public comment, Smith expressed frustration that there is not a clear way for board members to call a special meeting and asked the board’s legal counsel, Travis Jett, to clarify.

Jett said it was a “tricky” question, but replied, “The statuary authority of the board is a majority of the board can call a special meeting of the board.”

However, Smith questioned how the majority of the board could agree to call for a special meeting when board members can’t meet with quorum outside of official meetings and there is no new business section on the agenda.

“Maybe that suggests that that isn’t the way it’s supposed to work,” Hofmeister said.

Smith said he’d consider seeking an opinion outside of the State Department of Education.

“Maybe the attorney general can chime in on this for us,” Smith said. “Maybe I’ll ask him.”

Hofmeister: ‘It’s an election year’

Last week, Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters sent a letter to the state board requesting that a special meeting be called regarding Stillwater Schools to give “crystal clear guidance that boys use the boy’s restroom and girls use the girl’s restroom.”

On April 23, Smith asked Hofmeister in an email sent via Jett to place an item on the agenda of today’s meeting to discuss emergency rules regarding Stillwater’s bathroom policy.

“Stillwater and the secretary of education asked us to clarify a rule regarding bathroom issues at that school,” Smith told reporters after the meeting.”We wanted to address that and Superintendent Hofmeister would not let us do that.”

In a response to Smith’s email on April 25, provided to NonDoc by the Department of Education, Hofmeister denies Smith’s request and lists her reasons for doing so:

  1. The request for an emergency rule does not meet the statutory definition of “emergency” and we are now outside the April 1st deadline for rules promulgation.
  2. This would therefore exceed the state board’s authority and we’ve recently been rebuked for this same overreach that amounts to legislating.
  3. For these reasons, I requested a formal Attorney General’s Opinion as it is immediately binding and has the force of law.
  4. Today, legislators joined in asking for an Attorney General’s Opinion, too.

“We have to abide by the Open Meetings Act, and I will continue to do so,” Hofmeister told NonDoc after the meeting.

Hofmeister said that, in the past, agenda requests have been denied for various reasons, such as potentially impeding and investigation, and she has usually been able to successfully talk the issue through with the requesting board member. She referenced a board meeting in March where she refused to cast a vote on a proposal made by board member Brian Bobek.

“There are other times, like just recently, where there were members of the board that wanted changes to the health standards and we put that in the board agenda for them,” Hofmeister said. “I didn’t support that change, but certainly that was something to grant or honor as chair.”

Smith implied that Hofmeister might have other reasons for denying his request.

“I have my own theories as to why she’s kind of being an obstructionist to us,” Smith told reporters after the meeting. “I think it started when she changed that letter after her name from an R to a D and decided she was going to be governor. Things have definitely changed in that board room since then.”

Hofmeister told NonDoc that she doesn’t think there have been any issues in the board room related to her gubernatorial run.

“I would say it’s an election year and all of these members are appointed by Gov. Stitt,” Hofmeister said. “So draw your own conclusions.”

When asked after the meeting what he hoped would result from a special meeting on the Stillwater Schools issue, Smith said it’s his job to carry out the agenda of Gov. Stitt.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but I was appointed by Gov. Stitt. I’m a non-elected person,” Smith said after the meeting. “Gov. Stitt has made pretty clear his thoughts and feelings on this, and I see it as my job to carry out his agenda.”