OKCPS District 3
Incumbent Cary Pirrong is facing challenger Jessica Cifuentes in the school board race for Oklahoma City Public Schools District 3 on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (NonDoc)

In Tuesday’s race for District 3 of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board, incumbent Cary Pirrong faces a challenger who says the board needs more “equitable” representation of district students and families.

“I think to be able to have equitable representation on the school board qualifies me,” Jessica Cifuentes recently told NonDoc.

Cifuentes is a 25-year-old, bilingual Latina who graduated from ASTEC High School, a charter school formerly sponsored by OKCPS. She is also an Emory University graduate, earning a material science engineering degree from the institution.

She faces 58-year-old lawyer and community leader Cary Pirrong, who was appointed to the board in 2022. Pirrong is the administrative director of the Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners and previously served as the director of equity and compliance for Oklahoma City Community College. He is an OKCPS graduate.

Whoever is elected to the seat Tuesday will have a hand in guiding the district through the search period for the next OKCPS superintendent, as Sean McDaniel is set to resign June. 30.

“I think we should find the best superintendent for Oklahoma City now. The most important job a school board ever does is hiring the superintendent,” Pirrong said. “We’re doing a nationwide search, and that’s not to say that the perfect candidate may not be sitting in Oklahoma City right now. We need to do an extensive search and find the best possible person for Oklahoma City going forward.”

Priorities differ between OKCPS District 3 candidates

As she prepares to face Pirrong on Tuesday, Cifuentes said she wants to focus on improving OKCPS school sites and providing additional representation for Hispanic students and families, who make up a significant portion of the district’s population.

“The hardest thing for me right now to kind of swallow up is the fact that we are [near the bottom] in the nation in terms of education, and the worst schools are in Oklahoma City Public Schools,” Cifuentes said.

To turn the numbers around, Cifuentes said priorities should include teacher retention and reducing class sizes.

“I think what is really scary to me right now is the fact that our class sizes are getting bigger,” Cifuentes said. “So this system and this trajectory that we have right now — it’s bound to collapse if we don’t do something about it.”

If reelected, Pirrong said he wants to continue working on things OKCPS is doing well.

“I think one thing that OKCPS does really well — and I want us to continue to do this and expand it if we can — is our early childhood education. We’re an industry leader when it comes to that, and we have space for every child. It’s not a lottery,” Pirrong said. “The other thing I’m very excited about is our workforce development that we’re going to be implementing over the next few years thanks to the voters and the bond issue.”

Pirrong said one of his goals is to make sure OKCPS graduates are prepared for whatever path they choose after graduation, whether that is college, a career technology center or the workforce.

Pirrong also said OKCPS’ implementation of the $955 million worth of bond-funded proposals passed in 2022 remains important to him. How and when the district will invest those approved loans became a source of some consternation between McDaniel and some board members.

“It’s very important that as a board and a district that we follow through with what was promised to the voters on the bond issue and make sure that the bond issue goes through not over budget, and that we deliver what we promised,” Pirrong said. “I want to make sure that that oversight is there from the board.”

Pirrong added that he thinks the bond issue would likely be better implemented by “taking a long-term approach.”

Charter school policies and authorizations are likely to be another issue that each candidate will face if elected.

The OKCPS board recently approved two charter schools and denied two others. Pirrong voted for one of the charter schools that was approved but against the other three at the two meetings where they were up for consideration.

As a graduate of an OKCPS charter school, Cifuentes said she is open to all school options. She recently accepted a job teaching planetary and environmental science through the end of the semester at Mount St. Mary, a private Catholic high school in southwest OKC.

“I want what is best for each student, whatever that is to them. And so some students do better at public schools, some students do better at charter schools. Some students do better in private, maybe even. And so if a student does better at a certain school, let’s get them that school,” Cifuentes said.

(Correction: This article was updated at 6:50 p.m. Monday, April 1, to correct reference to Cifuentes’ teaching job. It was updated again at 10:15 a.m. to correct reference to ASTEC’s sponsorship as a charter school.)