Catch up on recent Oklahoma education news in this roundup. (NonDoc)

With the 2023-2024 school year starting across the state of Oklahoma, the system responsible for educating most of those kids continues to dominate the news cycle. In our modern and hectic world, some things can get lost in the mix.

The following Oklahoma education roundup summarizes education-related stories that you may have missed over the last few months, including new quotes and recent updates on high-profile misconduct cases working through the judicial system.

Walters: State board to decide Tulsa Public Schools accreditation Aug. 24

Oklahoma education roundup
Located at 624 E. Oklahoma Place, Carver Middle School is a part of the Tulsa Public Schools district. (Bennett Brinkman)

Although Tulsa Public Schools held its first day of classes Thursday, the district’s accreditation status remains in flux. Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has said the State Board of Education will take action on TPS’ accreditation at its next meeting Aug. 24, although it remains unclear what motion or action he may propose for the board.

In the meantime, several public officials have spoken out in support of TPS. At a special board meeting Tuesday, members of the TPS Board of Education voted 5-2 to approve a resolution calling on the State Board of Education to approve OSDE’s recommendation that the district be accredited with deficiencies.

Walters has repeatedly said “all options are on the table” for Tulsa Public Schools, including a non-accreditation designation that would include a State Board of Education takeover of the district.

The George Kaiser Family Foundation issued a statement Monday calling a potential state takeover “counterproductive.”

“We believe a state takeover of TPS or failure to renew the system’s accreditation would be counterproductive for many reasons and damaging to the educational outcomes and experience of Tulsa students and the city — we have been communicating that view directly to those involved,” said GKFF executive director Ken Levit.

Additionally, Gov. Kevin Stitt also seemed to advise against a state takeover of the district.

Barbara Hoberock of the Tulsa World reported Stitt’s comments Aug. 15.

“I don’t know what takeover is, what they are talking about,” Stitt said. “I believe in local control. I think the local board needs to address that.”

Feds lead investigation into TPS embezzlement, involved in GEER fund inquiry

Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler speaks with Attorney General Gentner Drummond ahead of an Oklahoma District Attorneys Council meeting Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Tres Savage)

As part of his campaign criticizing TPS, Walters has cited an ongoing investigation into alleged embezzlement within the district as reason for potentially downgrading its accreditation.

Following Thursday’s meeting of the state District Attorneys Council, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the case remains under investigation by federal agents and that information on their progress remains scant.

“Given that it appeared there may have been aspects that might be across state lines, we felt it was better for the federal government to actually take a look at that. That’s kind of where it’s been at since referral,” Kunzweiler said. “I’m out of that loop.”

Attorney General Gentner Drummond also attended Thursday’s meeting of the District Attorneys Council, answering a question afterward about the recent revelation that the FBI has been assisting his office’s investigation of how federal GEER funds were handled by Walters and the organization Every Kid Counts Oklahoma.

“In general, there is deconfliction,” Drummond said regarding cases that involve federal funds. “So anytime we look at something, we want to let our federal partners know if we’re looking at something or not so that we don’t get in their lane. And that’s the standard practice on everything that we touch. We deconflict with [the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs] and [the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation] or any other related state agency, any district attorney that it might be in their jurisdiction and federal (partners).”

Drummond said he could not discuss the GEER funding investigation specifically.

Matt Langston, Walters’ chief political advisor, told Nolan Clay of The Oklahoman that the superintendent’s office was unaware of the federal inquiry.

“We are not aware of any investigation involving Superintendent Walters,” Langston said.

Hearing looms with Drummond handling Epic criminal case

Ben Harris, David Chaney, Josh Brock, Epic charges
Ben Harris, David Chaney and Josh Brock were arrested Thursday, June 23, 2022, on charges related to alleged criminal conspiracy while they ran Epic Charter Schools. (NonDoc)

Multiple dates in the third week of October have been designated for a preliminary hearing in the criminal racketeering and embezzlement cases against Epic Charter School co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney and former chief financial officer Josh Brock.

A slew of preliminary hearing conferences had been scheduled and rescheduled before finally taking place in May. With the conferences out of the way, the case now moves forward to a preliminary hearing for each defendant.

The three men helped found and lead the state’s largest virtual public charter school before audits and criminal investigations revealed an alleged “complicated criminal enterprise” that lead to charges of embezzlement filed by then-Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

Prater left office in January, and Drummond exercised his legal authority as attorney general to assume control of the prosecutions. He said the preliminary hearing in October is the next step in the case.

“That will be determinative of where we go (from there),” Drummond said.

DA: More charges coming for former Byng IT employee

Zachary Milliren, left, signs a document with his attorney, Alex Courtney, at the Pontotoc County Courthouse on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Tres Savage)

In January, Zachary Milliren was charged with three felonies for allegedly accessing a teacher’s personal Snapchat account, stealing her private nude photos and attempting to trade them for other nude photos with at least one district student. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation found images and videos of more than 200 Byng community members on Milliren’s devices.

On Thursday, Pontotoc County District Attorney Erik Johnson said he anticipates additional charges will be filed in the case now that OSBI has processed more evidence. ,

“They are continually getting additional information to our office, so we are looking at filing some additional charges,” Johnson said.

Another former Byng employee, Erin Nicole Fixico-Mitchell, is awaiting sentencing in a case involving sexual misconduct with a district student. A tribal citizen, Fixico-Mitchell pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual abuse of a minor in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

Owing to the scope of the Milliren investigation and the chronology of the Fixico-Mitchell prosecution, state and federal investigators have likely coordinated the review of images seized from the district’s former IT employee.

Former Ninnekah coach sentenced after plea agreement

Former Ninnekah Public Schools and Friend Public Schools girls basketball coach Ron Akins pleaded guilty in Grady County District Court on Thursday after striking a deal struck with District Attorney Jason Hicks. Judge Kory Kirland sentenced Akins to 15 years in prison and 25 years probation for 10 felony counts that included sexual battery and lewd acts with minors.

Josh Dulaney of The Oklahoman covered the sentencing Thursday, chronicling a victim’s impact statement and details about related litigation.

Akins was charged in 2021 after a federal lawsuit was filed against Ninnekah Public Schools, employees and representatives by Cameron Spradling. The federal lawsuit is ongoing, with 14 alleged victims listed as Jane Does.

Questions linger over teacher incentive program

ryan walters conversation
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters listens to comments during a roundtable discussion in Warner, OK, on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

In an interview July 14, Walters gave an update on the teacher incentive program he announced in April to attract more people to the profession. Teachers certified for pre-kindergarten through third grade or special education at any grade level are eligible to apply.

“The funds will not be dispersed until Sept. 1,” Walters said. “That was an issue with just the way the lottery is set up when they do their audit and they’re able to solidify how much money they brought in. So we are sending out more information to districts about applications. We do have quite a few applications already in.”

When he announced the program in April, he said it would allow some new or returning teachers to receive up to a $50,000 signing bonus when they make a five-year commitment. At the time, Walters said the program would be funded through Oklahoma State Department of Education with “discretionary” funds.

In his July 14 interview with NonDoc, Walters said the funding comes from money OSDE receives from the Oklahoma Lottery.

Under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, NonDoc made a request Aug. 4 for documents and data related to applications, impacted districts and incurred costs of the program. The request is pending.

Educators looking to learn more about the bonus program can on the OSDE website.

New OSDE rules approved by governor

Board of Education
The Oklahoma State Department of Education offices inside the Oliver Hodge Building at 2500 N. Lincoln Blvd. in Oklahoma City. (Tres Savage)

On June 23, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a declaration approving a set of controversial OSDE rules approved by the State Board of Education in March.

While new agency rules generally must be approved or disapproved by the state Legislature through a joint resolution, the two chambers may also decide not to approve or disapprove rules.

In his declaration, Stitt said that when the Legislature decides not to act on new rules, he may instead approve or disapprove them.

The OSDE rules concern school libraries and the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

After defining terms such as “pornographic” and “sexualized,” the rule for libraries requires districts to send the OSDE lists of books available to students each year. The rule also prohibits school libraries from providing “pornographic materials or sexualized content” to students. If schools willfully fail to comply with the rule, the district’s accreditation could be downgraded.

The second rule concerns the “rights” of parents to be involved in their child’s education.

The new rule would adopt the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and rules surrounding such rights. The Parents’ Bill of Rights was also adopted by the Legislature in 2014.

Despite such laws already existing in state statute, Walters said at the State Board of Education meeting in March that the new agency rules were needed because schools have not been complying with the law.

The rule requires schools to notify parents of “any information known to the school district or its employees regarding material changes reasonably expected to be important to parent(s) regarding their child’s health, social, or psychological development, including identity information.”

The decision over whether to approve the rules was complicated by an opinion from Attorney General Gentner Drummond advising that the new rules were invalid.

Drummond released the advisory opinion April 4 saying that, because the State Board of Education had not been expressly told by the Legislature to adopt new rules concerning the Parents’ Bill of Rights and libraries, it did not have the power to do so.

Litigation looms from former OSDE employees

Although Walters recently sent a “secret” report to Republican lawmakers that said his administration had decreased financial bloat within OSDE, some former employees of the agency are preparing to sue the department for wrongful termination.

Janessa Bointy is an Edmond parent and former school counselor specialist for Project AWARE, a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant program meant to provide mental health services for students. She was fired in March after she spoke at an Edmond Public Schools board meeting about the mental health services and the grant in the wake of a student suicide that rocked the community. Bointy said that she spoke in her personal capacity and only used publicly available information in her speech to increase awareness about the grant.

“I felt compelled to speak at the board meeting after a young man in our school district lost his life due to complications to an attempted suicide,” Bointy told media May 31. “Knowing that the work that I do — or the work that I was privileged to do at the time — was directly working with school districts to assess and evaluate where they were with their mental health services and support and help them establish stronger supports for students, expand those services, so that every child had access to the mental health support that they needed.”

When Bointy was fired, OSDE cited her comments at the board meeting as a violation of the department’s media policy.

On May 26, Bointy filed a tort claim alleging violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech. In the claim, she said she intends to seek “all remedies available under the law” and that such damages include lost wages, compensatory damages and emotional distress damages.” Bointy and her attorney estimate that they will seek compensation in excess of $10,000.

“I had no heads up. I had no forewarning. I went in, and I mean, I felt like I was blindsided,” Bointy said of her termination. “(They said) ‘You’re terminated, you violated our media policy by speaking at the Edmond school board meeting,’ I think was the exact words or something along those lines.”

Typically, respondents have 90 days to respond to or ignore a tort claim. If the respondents deny the allegations through a response or simply by ignoring it, plaintiffs then have 180 days to sue on the grounds laid out in the tort claim.

In addition to Bointy, two other former OSDE employees filed lawsuits in May in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma alleging violation of their First Amendment rights. Cheryl McGee and Matthew Colwell were both fired after they allegedly leaked an email to members of the media. They are both suing Walters and Langston.

OTC preparing school choice tax credit administration

The Oklahoma Tax Commission said in a press release Wednesday that it is working with OSDE to implement HB 1934, the bill passed by the Legislature in May to create refundable tax credits for the parents of homeschool students and private school students.

The commission has created a running list of Frequently Asked Questions on its website to help parents take advantage of the new programs. Parents will be able to claim the refundable tax credits of up to $7,500 per student for tax year 2024 if they send their kids to an accredited private school in Oklahoma.

For parents who homeschool their children, they are able to apply for a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per student.

State Board of Education seat still vacant

Trent Smith
Trent Smith shakes hands with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters before an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Thursday, March 23, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

After former State Board of Education member Trent Smith resigned in May, his seat remains vacant three months later.

As governor, Stitt appoints six of the seven members of the board. Stitt appointed Smith Jan. 22, 2021, and reappointed Smith in January of this year.

But Smith was never confirmed by the State Senate, as he resigned before his confirmation vote. Smith said his reason for resigning was that he felt he had accomplished each of his goals for his time on the board.

Stitt sent Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) formal notice withdrawing Smith’s nomination on May 25, the penultimate day of regular session.

His seat representing the 5th Congressional District has been vacant for each of the past three State Board of Education meetings. It is unclear when Stitt will appoint a new member to fill the vacancy, but gubernatorial appointments are listed here.

After 7 years, lawsuit on alleged OSDE underpayment dismissed

On Aug. 8, an Oklahoma County District Court judge granted a motion for summary judgment and dismissed a nearly seven-year-old lawsuit multiple school districts filed against the OSDE, the state superintendent and the state treasurer over alleged underpayments of state aid to the districts.

School districts Midwest City-Del City, Enid, Ponca City and Oklahoma City filed the lawsuit Sep. 14, 2016, against OSDE, the state superintendent and state treasurer after they said they were underpaid by the state from 1991 to 2014. They also said that other districts were overpaid in the same timeframe.

But Oklahoma County District Court Judge Sheila Stinson said the plaintiffs lacked standing, saying in her dismissal that the plaintiffs “presented no facts or legal authority establishing that the state aid funds they seek are based on any appropriations of state aid to their specific school districts that have not lapsed.”