A rural Oklahoma school board recently chose not to approve a charter school in their district. But the State Board of Education exercised authority given to them in a new law and overrode that rural board’s decision. This is the first time this has happened, and it’s got some people wondering—who’s really in charge?
In 2015 Oklahoma lawmakers passed Senate Bill 782, which allowed rural school districts to start charter schools. Prior to this only large, urban school districts could have charters.
And with this new law, rural school boards had a new opportunity. But the law also saddled them with a new responsibility: They were in charge of deciding whether or not to approve these new schools.
However, if the board refused to authorize a charter school, despite public demand for it, then the applicant could appeal to the State Board of Education.
And this is what happened in January.
The Seminole Public School Board of Education had voted unanimously, twice, to deny a charter school application in their district because they felt it did not meet multiple requirements laid out in the charter school law.
But the applicant—Paul Campbell-- had appealed their decision to the State Board.
Campbell is the CEO of a local aerospace company, Enviro Systems. And he told the State Board that he was having a hard time recruiting people to come work for him, because the local school district wasn’t performing well enough.
"I know this stings a lot for the folks in Seminole, but it’s just the truth—they’re having a hard time justifying putting their kids in a school that averages a 19.5 on the ACT," he said.
So, Campbell wanted to create a new school to improve education, and attract new hires.
But the Superintendent of Seminole, Alfred Gaches, argued his district performs better than the schools in Arkansas that the new charter is set to be modeled after.
Furthermore, Gaches said there just wasn’t enough community support for the charter. And that’s a requirement in the law. Only 105 people within the school district boundaries had signed a petition supporting it.
"1.4 percent of the population of Seminole public schools," Gaches said.
But the State Board took issue with another aspect of community support in Seminole. Parts of Seminole’s old high school building had been deemed unsafe, and kids were now using a former grocery store as their school. The local board had approved two bond issues to solve the problem, but residents rejected both of them.
And State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she had a problem with that.
"Because I’m not sure whether that means the local community doesn’t support the plan that the board put forward on two occasions," she said.
The debate went on for hours, but ultimately the state board approved the new charter.
After the meeting Hofmeister said the charter school was a locally-proposed solution to a local problem.
Gaches on the other hand, felt the board had made a bad decision.
"I feel it sets a dangerous precedence when you take away local control of five duly elected people representing the city of Seminole and the school district of Seminole, you over turned their decisions based on what someone who’s never been to Seminole might think," he said.
He thought State Board had let a local business dictate the educational needs of his community, and that worried him.
A few weeks after the January meeting I went to Seminole to try and guage the level of community support for the charter school, and asked people in the local Wal-Mart parking lot how they felt.
I was surprised. No one seemed to know what I was talking about.
However, Jack Cadenhead, the former Seminole school board president, was still rattled by the State Board’s decision. He, too, felt they had stepped on the local board’s toes.
"For the State board to override a unanimous decision of a locally elected, democratically elected board of education—just goes against the principals I believe in. And the principals I thought republicans and conservatives believed in," he said.
Cadenhead is now worried the new charter school will negatively affect Seminole, and the surrounding districts.
"It will affect us financially," he said. "It will affect our teachers. I forsee riffs in the future. For sure."
But Steve Saxon, the city manager of Seminole, said the state board made the right decision. He thinks the charter school will attract new industry to Seminole, and keep current industry in place.
"I think it’s absolutely a situation where this community can grow and have different options and be fantastic," Saxon said.
Saxon also said a plan for a new Seminole High School building is in the works, and he thinks they’ll begin construction on it by December.