Jamie Polk
New Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Polk receives flowers from family members and OKCPS Board Chairwoman Paula Lewis after a brief board meeting affirming the hiring decision Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Tres Savage)

When Jamie Polk left Lawton Public Schools in 2019 to join Oklahoma City Public Schools, Superintendent Sean McDaniel was among the first people who made an impression on her.

Almost five years later, the OKCPS Board of Education voted unanimously this morning to hire Polk as McDaniel’s successor after he announced his resignation in February after serving as the district’s longest-serving leader in decades.

“Dr. McDaniel is a people person,” Polk said. “I can think of six or seven times where he had reached out to ensure I’m OK, but he didn’t do that just for me. He does that for everyone.”

During a 15-minute Saturday morning board meeting, about 50 community members and district employees gave a standing ovation as Chairwoman Paula Lewis made the motion to hire Polk, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary schools.

“Dr. Polk has a proven track record with OKCPS and has been a catalyst for significant improvements to both culture and academic achievement of our district,” Lewis said after the meeting.

Originally from Iowa, Polk came to Oklahoma as a military spouse and spent 25 years in Lawton, serving LPS in various leadership roles. She started with OKCPS in July 2019 and holds a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma.

“I love school,” Polk said. “I enjoy data and dig into data, but what’s most important for me is I enjoy helping people — empowering them to be the best that they can be. (…) Through this journey, we will excel, and we will be the first-choice district in Oklahoma.”

Polk said she wants to focus on improving enrollment “first and foremost.” In Oklahoma, school district funding is tied to enrollment, and the impending conclusion of a federal funding program has the district anticipating larger class sizes and fewer teachers for the 2024-2025 school year.

“I believe I’m a systems leader,” said Polk, who will officially assume the superintendent role July 1. “I look for systems, and I look for where perhaps they’ve broken down, and that’s where we plug in. So I was looking for systems, and that’s what we’ve done in the elementary department.”

Unusual Saturday morning meeting draws frustration

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Jamie Polk smiles as the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board votes to hire her as the district’s superintendent Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Tres Savage)

The district’s board received 20 applicants for the superintendent position, and a series of recent board meetings involved interviews with “six or seven” of the top applicants, according to Lewis. One of the meetings occurred at the Skirvin Hotel in downtown OKC, with Murray Evans of The Oklahoman reporting that they were instructed to leave the building.

OKCPS communications staff said the unusual time and date for Saturday morning’s meeting stemmed from potential scheduling conflicts with district graduation ceremonies next week.

“I think this is absurd,” said OKCPS parent and former district educator Sarah DeWitt. “This is such an important topic that it seems like we should maximize the ability of the community to attend and engage, and 9 a.m. on a Saturday seems at odds with that goal.”

Nonetheless, Saturday’s hiring announcement was festive, with Polk receiving flowers and posing with board members and staff for celebratory photos. District 2 OKCPS Board member Lori Bowman called Polk “absolutely the right choice.”

“We were very impressed with the quality of candidates who applied for the job, which is a testament to the work Dr. McDaniel and the district had done in the years leading up to today,” Bowman said. “She has the experience we need. She has worked in the elementary schools in OKCPS for many years and has moved the needle for those elementary schools, and we know that she is going to be able to do that for the whole district, and we are thrilled.”

Polk said McDaniel has spoken with her during the hiring process and that they spoke Friday about what lies ahead. Asked if she believes any of the district’s major pending decisions need to be looked at further once she becomes superintendent, Polk responded, “To be honest, all of it.”

“But I must say, Dr. McDaniel has had us at the table for every [major discussion],” Polk said. “Being within the district, I’ve had the opportunity to take a look and see, and I personally look forward to building relationships not only within the district, but also in the community.”

Challenges ahead include bond projects, Capitol Hill question

OKCPS sizes
A chart depicts OKCPS average class sizes starting with the 2017-2018 school year and predicting average class sizes for the 2024-2025 school year. “P2G” means Pathway to Greatness. (Provided)

The OKCPS board hired McDaniel in May 2018, and he officially assumed the mantle leading the district that July.

McDaniel’s time as superintendent has seen a number of initiatives and changes in the district, including the implementation of the Pathways to Greatness plan that changed school feeder patterns and shuttered several school sites. McDaniel’s tenure also saw the passage of a nearly $1 billion bond package in November 2022 that will fund upgrades at almost every site in the district and a trio of new schools.

“I think about sitting on my rocking chair after I’ve retired and looking back on how I spent my life and the things that I did, and I can tell you, without question, if this bond passes and the opportunities that we can bring to our kids actually become a reality, I will sit on that rocking chair and look back and this will be the one thing that I got to be a part of in my career that will rise above everything else I’ve ever been a part of,” McDaniel said in November 2022, before voters approved the bond package.

But McDaniel’s leadership of the bond’s implementation was not without controversy, and it may have partly lead to his February resignation, which he attributed to “irreconcilable” differences with the board.

“As you know, a particular member of this board and I have completely different views regarding individual board members’ roles and responsibilities and mine in serving this district,” McDaniel wrote in his resignation letter. “For months, and in good faith I have tried to bridge that gulf through conversations with the board and with concessions I have been willing to make, but to no avail.”

McDaniel pushed, and the board later unanimously authorized, a lease-purchase bond model to allow the district to spend bond money faster and avoid a statutory debt limit of 10 percent of taxable property within the district. Typically, lease-purchase agreements come with higher interest rates than traditional general-obligation bonds.

“Lease purchase financing is legal by law, let’s go with that first,” Lewis said Saturday when asked about the lease-purchase bond process. “What it allows us to do is to get the buildings — the newer facilities — up and running quicker for kids, and that’s the up side. The down side could be that there is an interest cost to it, because it is a financing situation. We do accrue some interest (revenue) while it is being held in escrow.”

Lewis said the lease-hold bonds — which will be held by the Oklahoma Industries Authority — are “more like a construction loan of sorts” where funding is accessed when the district needs it.

“While there could be a pause if Dr. Polk comes in and decides, you know, ‘I want to look at flex spaces’ or something, we can pause that piece,” Lewis said. “But it’s moving forward on building the new elementary school, the new middle school and some renovations at Taft, different things like that. So the board approved it, and we believe it is the right thing to do. But we do understand that there is some question about the interest.”

Although board members unanimously approved the lease-purchase bond plan when it was brought before them April 15, Lewis expressed frustration at the time with a lack of transparency regarding the way the plan was presented to the board.

“(The) $500 million is more than 50 percent of the bond, and it’s the first time we’re bringing it out to talk about it,” Lewis said at the time.

On Saturday, Lewis said the board met regularly and attempted to expedite the hiring decision because, “We knew we needed to get it done.”

Asked about the controversial question of whether to move forward with replacing Capitol Hill High School entirely with a new campus, Lewis acknowledged that some community members have expressed frustration and want save at least some of the historic south-side structures.

“There’s been no action item to demolish it, so we are not there,” Lewis said. “We are moving forward with communication. I believe that Dr. Polk will have more engagement on that and look at that. But that is definitely one piece that has been in kind of a holding pattern until we have a new superintendent.”

In addition to that decision and other elements of managing bond-project implementation, the new OKCPS superintendent will also face challenges that include teacher contract non-renewals and rising class sizes as federal pandemic-era money expires. The Oklahoma Legislature provided significant funding increases for public school districts last session, and the State Senate is pushing for additional school support staff stipends or funding-formula dollars this session.

OKCPS will also likely face additional charter school questions in the coming months as it moves into contract negotiations with a two recently approved schools and could see others apply for sponsorship.