new state school board members
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed four new members to the State Board of Education on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2022. Clockwise from top left, the new members are Donald Burdick, Marla Hill, Suzanne Reynolds and Kendra Wesson. (Provided)

On the second day of his second term, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced replacements for four members of the State Board of Education, including the removal of the only person with public school educator experience. Stitt’s new appointments drew immediate criticism from one leading House Republican who said a lack of representation for rural school districts will lead him to push a bill this session to expand board membership.

“They have nothing to with the public education in Oklahoma, and the Department of Education is about public education in Oklahoma,” said House Appropriations and Budget Common Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride (R-Moore).

While all the moves will require confirmation from the Senate by the end of May, Stitt is replacing four of the six appointed members that comprise the board which oversees the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the state’s more than 500 school districts. Stitt’s changes include replacing the only state board member with public school teaching experience, Carlisha Williams Bradley.

“It’s time to rethink education in Oklahoma. It’s time for the tough conversations to address what’s working and what is not,” Stitt said Monday during his inaugural address. “It’s time to teach kids how to think, not what to think. And that means, we must give students more access to learning methods that fit their unique needs. We need more schools — not less schools — like the fear mongers claimed when we called for change.”

While 2nd Congressional District representative, Sarah Lepak of Claremore will remain on the board, the new state school board members appointed Tuesday by Stitt are:

  • Donald Burdick, a petroleum company executive who replaces Williams Bradley representing the 1st Congressional District;
  • Marla Hill, an Edmond resident and co-founder of a Christian-based publishing and production company that also operates retreat space and hunting grounds west of Kingfisher. Hill technically replaces Trent Smith representing the 3rd Congressional District, but Smith was reappointed to the board to fill Jennifer Monies’ seat representing the 5th Congressional District;
  • Kendra Wesson, a Norman accountant and failed legislative candidate who replaces Brian Bobek representing the 4th Congressional District;
  • Suzanne Reynolds, a Nichols Hills pharmacist who replaces Estela Hernandez as the at-large member of the board.

The board is chaired by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, an educator originally from McAlester who was elected in November with 56.8 percent of the vote. The board’s first meeting with Walters at the helm is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 26.

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Bobek and Hernandez declined to comment. Smith and Monies did not return calls seeking comment. Williams Bradley tweeted a statement Tuesday night.

“It was such an honor to serve on the State Board,” Williams Bradley said. “While the journey was far from easy, I am proud of charting a path that was value aligned and kept students & educators at the center of decision making. I will continue to advocate for public education in Oklahoma.”

McBride, the House education appropriations subcommittee chairman, took particular issue with the appointment of Marla Hill, a native of Kingfisher. Although the Hill family’s Cedar Gate businesses have headquarters in Kingfisher and Edmond, Hill homeschooled her children in Edmond and does not meet McBride’s definition of a rural board member, as Hill had been described to him by a member of the Stitt administration.

“This appointment absolutely does not represent public education in Oklahoma. They have nothing to do with public education in Oklahoma,” McBride said. “By the Constitution, we are required to provide a free public education for all the kids in the state of Oklahoma. That’s my job as education appropriations chairman. My job is not this other stuff. My job is to provide a free public education for the kids of Oklahoma, and this appointment does not represent public education in Oklahoma.”

Hill lives in Edmond, where she homeschooled her five kids. She holds a bachelor of science degree in political science from Oklahoma City University and a law degree from the University of Oklahoma.

She and her husband, Brian, co-founded Works24, a digital media company for phone hold music and lobby messaging. They also co-founded The Cedar Gate, a publishing and production house and corporate retreat space located west of Kingfisher.

Cedar Gate’s website lists TV commercials produced by the company, and it sells copies of published books, including one by former NFL defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Cedar Gate’s executive vice president of partnerships and promotions is Bill Horn, a former sports agent who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for making false statements on the tax returns for Harris’ nonprofit foundation. Horn was accused of diverting more than $266,000 to his personal bank accounts, and he pleaded guilty to charges in September 2017.

“The court also heard that he used Tommie Harris Foundation credit cards to fund expenses that benefitted himself and his family, including luxury car payments, restaurants, vacations, living expenses, air travel, and a home in California,” a U.S. attorney’s office press release stated in January 2018. “Horn will be required to pay restitution to The Boys & Girls Clubs of America in the amount of $697,842.69, which accounts for his diversion of funds from the Foundation’s charitable giving.”

The Hills have hosted political fundraisers at their Cedar Gate property. Marla Hill and Brian Hill each donated $8,700 to new Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ 2022 campaign. Both made $2,900 in-kind donations of “advertising production” and “event food and beverage” to former Attorney General John O’Connor’s campaign. They each donated $5,200 to Stitt’s 2018 campaign, but neither is listed as donating to his 2022 reelection effort, according to Ethics Commission records.

Hill and her husband are also on the board of advisors for America Prays, a national prayer advocacy organization. Marla Hill’s recent Facebook posts argue for Christian leadership in elected offices and call for Oklahomans to vote for Republicans in the 2022 election.

In one post, she asks her followers, “Will you (…) pray for the Turnaround of America back to God, until a restoration of godly leadership is established in our government and a spirit of revival is in our land?”

In another post, Marla Hill said, “Vote Red — Republican. I can attest that all of our Oklahoma candidates are serving as kingdom warriors.”

McBride said that although he is a born-again Christian himself, he is concerned about the confluence of religion with the state’s public education sector.

“It’s like they’re on a religious crusade,” said McBride, who is a member of Southern Hills Baptist Church in southwest Oklahoma City.

McBride said he has language drafted for a bill that would amend statute to add additional seats on the State Board of Education appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore. A native of rural northwest Oklahoma, McBride said his proposal would require the new members to be “from an actual rural area.”

Background on Burdick, Wesson and Reynolds

Beyond Hill, Stitt’s other new appointees to the State Board of Education also appear to have little public education experience in their backgrounds.

Burdick is the CEO of Olifant Energy II in Tulsa. According to Stitt’s press release announcing the appointments, Burdick co-founded four oil and gas companies. He holds a masters degree in geology from the University of Oklahoma, and his recent LinkedIn posts include comments and articles downplaying the causes and impacts of climate change.

“Wind and solar can’t be turned on when you need it, and it breaks the economics of reliable power sources. Time to fight this crap at every level,” Burdick wrote in one post before calling green energy “useless.”

In another post, Burdick linked to an article about climate epochs throughout Earth’s history.

“All societies should stop wasting money pursuing ‘net-zero’, reject the fear tactics of climate change propagandists and try behaving rationally in regards to energy,” Burdick wrote.

Burdick will succeed Williams Bradley, who had often voted with previous State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister on board matters.

Wesson is an accountant who originally hails from Lawton but now lives in Norman. In 2022, she ran against Rep. Jacob Rosecrants (D-Norman) as a Republican but lost the general election with 45.5 percent of the vote. A citizen of the Caddo Nation, she currently serves on the board for Le Monde International School in Norman, a French and Spanish immersion charter school. Wesson also owns Operation Accounting, Inc. in Norman.

According to her campaign website, Wesson ran for House District 46 “to defend the Constitutional rights of her neighbors which are being trampled by out-of-control federal and local governments.”

Reynolds is a graduate of Heritage Hall private school and the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy. She “has served in higher education at different universities,” according to Stitt’s press release. While Reynolds’ LinkedIn profile does not appear to be up to date, she listed her title at one point as a “Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.”

Reynolds called herself a “former faculty member” at OU during a State Board of Education meeting in July, where she spoke to members during the public comments section of the meeting to support the HB 1775 complaint against Tulsa Public Schools. During those remarks, she complained about the controversial diversity, equity and inclusion training she received while at OU

“I found this to be a direct assault on my civil rights, my freedom of religion, speech and thought,” Reynolds said. “These so-called DEI professional instructors are used to censor those that dissent to their belief system or have perspectives that do not align with their ideology.”

Through a spokesman, new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters declined to comment on the state board’s reconstruction.

New Veterans Commission members

On Tuesday, Stitt also appointed three new people to the nine-person Veterans Commission.

Brett Martin, an active member of the Department of Oklahoma American Legion, will replace longtime member Jerry Ball. Martin also served in the Navy and served two surge deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I and Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

Ted Perry replaces Jerletta Pandos. A West Point graduate, Perry received the Purple Heart after being shot during one of his two combat tours in Iraq. Perry also coaches football at Heritage Hall.

Daniel Orr replaces Gary Miles on the commission. Orr started Titan Safety Consulting Services, a worker safety company, and he owns a fly fishing store in Oklahoma City. Orr served in the Marine Corps.

(Update: This article was updated to include additional information at 8:20 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 12.)