Trent Smith resigned from the State Board of Education this month after serving more than two years. He had been the most senior member of the board after Gov. Kevin Stitt replaced four of the six members in January.
A former tight end for the University of Oklahoma and Baltimore Ravens football teams, Smith’s large personality often clashed with former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister on the field of the State Department of Education.
“I feel the pride of a hard day’s work completed and the weight of being in the public eye lifted,” Smith said in an interview Monday. “I feel like a drum with no sides right now, man, I’m tough to beat.”
Smith extended his metaphor as he reflected over his two years on the State Board of Education and two prior years on the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, making frequent references to battle.
“It’s been four years of war — for me personally — is what it feels like,” Smith said.
Smith described seven “battles” he feels he has fought and won as a member of the State Board of Education:
- Settling a 2017 lawsuit involving charter schools;
- Hiring an attorney specifically to represent the board, separate from OSDE’s legal counsel;
- Negotiating and promulgating rules for HB 1775, a controversial law restricting some teaching on history, race and gender;
- Promulgating rules for SB 615, another controversial law which requires restrooms and changing rooms in Oklahoma public schools to be designated by biological sex;
- Dealing with Epic Virtual Charter School issues;
- Overseeing Western Heights Public Schools; and
- “(Getting) Ryan Walters elected” as state superintendent of public instruction.
“Every single goal we had set in front of us when I was appointed has been accomplished,” Smith said.
Smith has also beat the drum on the large number of criminal abuse and assault cases involving teachers and students across the state. Monday, he mentioned those cases again without offering solutions for how to stop them from occurring.
“It’s at least 20 hours of studying in the week leading up to a board meeting, (…) not to mention the fact that you’re dealing with absolutely disgusting, horrific things that have happened to children at the hands of adults in schools across the state,” Smith said. “The different types of physical, emotional and sexual abuses at the hands of people who were supposed to be looking after them.”
In a previous interview at the State Capitol on May 8 — after he had submitted his resignation but before it became public — Smith discussed dealing with those cases in more specific terms.
“In executive session, we talk about all the legal cases and all the potential legal cases that are coming up,” Smith said. “Some of the stuff we hear on that stuff in the executive sessions are disgusting. And it’s appalling, but the department can only deal punishment to the profession — to the thing that allows them to be in the classroom. Most of the time, the districts themselves remove that teacher, put a hold on their license or whatever it is that they do to prevent them from going somewhere else. So there’s really — a lot of the times — not a lot the department can do.”
The board does have the power to revoke teacher certificates to prevent teachers fired in one district from taking a teaching job in another one.
OSDE currently has a number of pending certificate revocation applications, but the State Board of Education has taken no public action on any of them since Walters took office in January.
In an April 24 impromptu interview, Walters also discussed the prevalence of school employees being arrested or investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct with students. (On Monday, longtime Mustang High School science teacher Raymond Garner was charged with rape, sodomy and sexual battery.)
“We have got to do more to ensure that these things are not happening in our schools,” Walters said April 24. “I think there are local things that need to be done. We’re working at the agency level to figure out what can we do to ensure red flags are spotted — best practices in place. I’ve been working with some national partners on this to see — and I’ll be honest with you, everybody struggles with it.”
The department was set to have its first teaching certificate revocation hearing of the year on Tuesday, but not for a teacher facing criminal charges. Instead, the hearing had been scheduled for Summer Boismier, who publicly challenged HB 1775 in her Norman classroom last year.
The hearing was cancelled because one of the lawyers reportedly became sick.
‘I didn’t have anyone to antagonize anymore’
Though the question of how to prevent criminal sexual misconduct in schools lingers, Smith also discussed changes to the State Board of Education and the tumultuous early tenure of Ryan Walters during his May 8 Capitol visit.
“I was very clear on what my role was prior to Ryan and the governor winning reelection. I’m not quite sure (now),” Smith said. “I speak to the governor more than I speak to Ryan. (…) I’ve heard from a lot of people that they don’t get to speak with Ryan very often anymore.”
Smith also offered some words of wisdom for Walters.
“I believe in a lot of his policies and what he’s trying to do. Ryan is fighting the fights that he wants to fight in the arenas that he wants to fight them. He’s doing exactly what he promised he would do,” Smith said. “It’s Ryan’s show. He’s going to either suffer the consequences or reap the rewards of the decisions and actions that he takes and makes. That’s up to him.”
On Monday, Smith contrasted the board’s current makeup with the board during Hofmeister’s tenure, calling her a “worthy opponent” and emphasizing his respect for the former superintendent.
“We locked horns every month and over multiple things,” Smith said. “And sometimes she won. And sometimes I won.”
It seems, however, that Smith feels he has run out of battles and enemies.
“I’m not real sure what my role here is anymore,” Smith said. “I’m the classic antagonist, and I didn’t have anyone to antagonize anymore, basically.”
House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride praised Smith’s time on the board Tuesday.
“Trent is a good friend, and I think it’s awesome that he was there, and I wish him well,” said McBride (R-Moore).
‘That board and Ryan are in lockstep’
Gov. Kevin Stitt will choose a replacement for Smith, although not until after Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education.
Looking forward, Smith offered additional thoughts about the State Board of Education’s new members and Walters.
“He’s got a board that’s comprised 100 percent of Stitt appointees now,” Smith said. “And they’re in good hands.”
But Smith also emphasized the unknown as the biggest issue facing the board now.
“I didn’t know when the fight was coming, but I knew it was coming, which helps you prepare,” Smith said of his tenure. “And I just told [current board members] I said, ‘I don’t envy you because I don’t know what your fight is going to be.’ That board and Ryan are in lockstep philosophically on major education issues, just like I was with Ryan. And I hope that it’s going to be easier for them than it was for us.”