Activist Voices in Tulsa Schools: Helpful or Divisive?

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Broken Arrow Public Schools Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard.

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard calls the state superintendent and the education department “inept and incompetent.”

Broken Arrow Public Schools Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall put out pamphlets last fall, paid for by the district, blasting the Oklahoma State Department of Education. He also helped recruit a candidate to run in the GOP primary  this year against Superintendent Janet Barresi.

Update March 31: KRMG in Tulsa reported that Tulsa-area superintendents, including Ballard, will host a political fundraising rally for Janet Barresi’s primary opponent, Joy Hofmeister.

Both districts closed schools Monday and sent buses filled with teachers to Oklahoma City to join a rally at the State Capitol protesting what they see as inadequate funding.

Teachers, parents and administrators from the Tulsa area have been among the loudest and angriest voices in the state when it comes to criticizing education policies.

Interviews with Tulsa and other school officials don’t reveal a single clear reason for the city’s activist bent in education. Tulsa schools aren’t the only ones wrestling with low achievement among students who are poor and the pressures of testing, policy changes and teacher-pay and funding issues. Some officials say one factor is that many Tulsa school leaders and parents have similar views, and superintendents communicate with each other a lot. That tends to raise the volume, although the news media, a parent-teacher group and others have questioned whether school officials have gone too far.

Ballard and Mendenhall are unapologetic.

“I do believe someone needs to speak up from within the education community,” Ballard said. “If it falls to us, so be it.”

The two superintendents are sharply critical of Barresi, but say although they oppose her reelection, they are not participating in an election campaign.

Ballard, for example, said his district is loud and active because the community is frustrated and something needs to change. Tulsa was among 163 districts that got an F in 2013 as part of the A-F grading system. Only 10 districts received an F in 2012. School leaders also are struggling to get many third-grade students to pass a high-stakes reading test this spring so they won’t be held back a grade; Ballard opposes mandated, test-based retention.

He said he wants Barresi replaced.

At the same time, he said he is not endorsing any candidate, rather speaking to education issues and why he believes the state needs a change of leadership at the education department.

“I’m not campaigning and I’m not electioneering on my time,” Ballard said. “I am speaking on the issues. I have an obligation to speak up as the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools on these issues.”

Mendenhall also asserts that his actions and remarks are part of his superintendent role.

Last fall, Mendenhall distributed a series of pamphlets to parents explaining reforms and saying the state is not providing proper school funding and is imposing bad education policies.

The series included titles and phrases such as “system failure,” “failure to listen,” “audience of one” and “less is not more.”

The district spent $6,638 on printing and mailing the four-part series. Funding came from the district’s marketing and communications budget.

The goal of the series was to tell parents how state policies are affecting Broken Arrow classrooms, Mendenhall said. He said most parents’ reaction to the district’s stance was positive, although a few were critical saying it was inappropriate.

Mendenhall also originated  a request to superintendents statewide to issue a vote of no confidence in Barresi after the state botched parts of a roll-out of the A-F system.

He also said he actively recruited Joy Hofmeister, a former state school board member, to run against Barresi in the Republican primary. Mendenhall said he spoke with Hofmeister about running on two occasions over the past year.

Still, Mendenhall said he is not campaigning.

“I feel it was appropriate for me to reach out to someone I thought would be a good solid candidate,” Mendenhall said. “I did not approach anyone else, but I have talked to some of the other candidates.”

Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for Barresi’s office, declined to comment at length on statements by the Tulsa and Broken Arrow superintendents.

“There have been disagreements in the past,” Bacharach said. “You’re never going to please everybody all of the time … Some people do get colorful with their language.”

Most of the rhetoric focuses on opposition to new state policies, many of which were passed by the Legislature, Bacharach said. The third-grade reading law is an example.

Despite the friction, Bacharach said there are districts that support or have a strong relationship with the department.

“There are a lot of districts in the Tulsa area we have good relations with,” he said. “Ballard and Mendenhall have been very vocal in their castigation of the state superintendent. I think it’s important to move beyond that.”

At the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association, President Jeffrey Corbett said the rhetoric and stances from both sides have done nothing to help students struggling in the classroom.

Third graders are still at risk of being held back, parents and districts are still confused about A-F grades, and teachers and classrooms remain underfunded.

Both sides should find common ground and work for students’ best interest, Corbett said.

“There appears to be finger pointing rather than sitting down and talking,” he said. “A lot of the things that I’ve read, I think we need to just come together.”

At Oklahoma City Public Schools, Interim Superintendent Dave Lopez said districts like his may not be as outspoken but they’re just as passionate.

Oklahoma City did not take Monday off from school to let teachers attend the rally, a decision supported by the district’s teachers union.

“Ballard has spent time in Tulsa, and they feel that’s what’s effective for them,” Lopez said of organizing a rally. “What I feel is most effective is making specific requests to lawmakers.”

Tulsa Public Schools was among the first to decide it would not have school on March 31 to give teachers the opportunity to rally.

Tulsa is using five school buses, which hold between 52 and 56 adults, to send teachers to Tulsa. Each teacher is paying $10 to offset the cost of transportation.

The district expected about 1,000 teachers to attend, with many taking their own vehicles.

Broken Arrow teachers are also paying $10 each to use the district’s buses for transportation to and from the rally.

Tulsa-area teachers and parents weren’t the only ones there. Thousands of other educators and supporters from districts around the state arrived at the event, organized by the Oklahoma Education Coalition is organizing the event.

“I think educators just want to be heard,” Ballard said. “It’s too bad we have had to resort to a rally.”

  • Joe Eddins

    Mr. Robson, You could be helpful if you would clearly define the standard for the EOI Algebra I high stakes test. Show how the ACT test scores reflect change in student learning. Show how 30,000 Pass the test, and what their new ability is in Algebra, especially with reference to college preparation, how ACE promised mastery of algebra I, and how the lowest 25% demonstrated their improvement. I have some data . Thank you Joe Eddins, Oklahoma House of Representatives, retired, 1994 – 2006

  • Debra

    “I’m not campaigning and I’m not electioneering on my time,” Ballard said. “I am speaking on the issues. I have an obligation to speak up as the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools on these issues.”

    Mendenhall also asserts that his actions and remarks are part of his superintendent role.”

    Have the contracts signed by these superintendents – which would presumably outline their roles – been made public? A casual nod to contracts by people with tremendous power to influence people and also the power to let people go (fire – or otherwise be rid of them) runs contrary to the balancing of power that is why we have a nation built on representative law balanced by the Bill of Rights. I’m all for teachers, parents, and students asserting their rights to be heard – and I certainly am not in support of the performance of the Baressi administration. But I cannot support the empowerment of any publicly-funded executive to bypass the contracted and explicit delineation of his/her powers and use “company time or resources” to achieve an outcome – no matter how “good” or how well supported by constituents the cause may be. I realize my view flies in the face of the modern state of American politics on most levels. Yes. It does. I believe in an accountable, representative government. So that leads me back to my first question – are these superintendents’ contracts delineating their roles available to the public?