Mustang, state board
State Board of Education members talk after their meeting on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022. (Bennett Brinkman)

Following a controversial July meeting that saw the accreditations of Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools downgraded, the Oklahoma State Board of Education doubled down at Thursday’s meeting by voting against new requests from the districts.

Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools had asked the board to reconsider its July accreditation downgrades following HB 1775 complaints, but members voted 3-2 against each request.

Board members Trent Smith, Sarah Lepak and Brian Bobek voted against reconsidering the actions. Carlisha Williams Bradley and Superintendent Joy Hofmeister voted for reconsideration. Jennifer Monies and Estela Hernandez were absent.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” TPS Superintendent Debora Gist told media after the votes. “I’m disappointed not only in the decision, I’m also disappointed in the entire meeting. The behavior, the choices about both decisions but also how time was spent.”

Gist criticized the board for not even discussing the situations affecting Tulsa and Mustang schools.

Mustang High School principal Kathy Knowles also expressed frustration with the vote.

“(This is) disappointing for our teachers, for our students, for our schools,” Knowles said. “We’re in the middle of a teacher shortage, and this just exacerbates the problem.”

The board’s two votes occurred after a public comment period during which MPS and TPS officials pleaded for the board to allow them to appeal their cases.

“You were in a position where, I believe, you made an uninformed decision,” said MPS Superintendent Charles Bradley, as he asked for “due process” from the board.

Of the 11 people who made public comments Thursday, MPS and TPS staff and parents comprised nine of the speakers. Comments came from a variety of figures, including parents, TPS legal counsel, an MPS principal, the mayor of Mustang and Gist and Bradley.

“The uproar resulting from the state board’s decision in July is threatening to distract us from the important work we’re doing in Tulsa,” TPS Board of Education President Stacey Woolley said. “Let me take this opportunity to be abundantly, powerfully and unmistakably clear: Tulsa Public Schools did not violate the letter or spirit of House Bill 1775.”

‘It’s already hard enough to teach in this state’

TPS and MPS were the first districts penalized as a result of HB 1775, the permanent rules for which were approved by the board in March. The law prohibits the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender.

Although some tout the law as a ban on critical race theory, the statute and the rules make no mention of the academic concept taught at some colleges and law school.

In July, the State Board of Education downgraded the two districts’ accreditations to “accredited with warning,” one step lower than Oklahoma State Department of Education legal counsel Brad Clark’s recommendation of “accredited with deficiency.”

Even though officials from both districts have hinted at possible litigation against the board relating to potential Open Meeting Act violations at the July meeting, they also worry that they have little recourse available to them following Thursday’s votes. District officials said they worry about what message it sends to their communities.

“It’s already hard enough to teach in this state — has been for decades,” Gist said after the votes. “And now you’re going to make it harder and then wonder why we’re struggling.”

Gist agreed with Knowles, the Mustang principal, that the state’s teacher shortage has been exacerbated by the confusion and complaints regarding HB 1775.

“We’re all doing everything we can do to make it work, and apparently, [the shortage] isn’t on their radar at all,” Gist said.

While the teacher shortage was not explicitly mentioned in the board’s meeting, board members did approve 1,077 new emergency teacher certifications. That brings the total of emergency certifications to 3,157 already this year, a marked rise from the 2,388 emergency certifications approved at the same timeframe last year.

Also on Thursday, the state board approved emergency rules for SB 615, which requires restrooms and changing rooms in Oklahoma public schools to be designated by biological sex. The new law has been criticized as harmful for transgender students.

In public comment, Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, implored the board to delay approving the rules.

“Choose students this time,” McAfee said. “I lose sleep at night knowing young folks in my community face disproportionately high rates of death by suicide exacerbated by some of the things said in this room.”

The board voted 5-0 to approve the SB 615 rules.