We Have Local Control Over our Schools, or Do We?

Analysis: I am a big fan of local control.  I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I want local control over my business, my city and the school district that serves my city where I own several properties.  More than control I want my business, my city and the school system that serves my city to be successful.

As far as I know the Tulsa Public School system (TPS) has always been controlled by people who reside in Tulsa.  Therefore, TPS has had and currently has local control.

In my view there are three methods of local control for a school district.  The first is what I will call superintendent control, the second is school board control and the third is parental and citizen control.

There is something positive to be said for each of these. 

Superintendent control is time efficient (no arguments, few questions, short board meetings). 

School board control is established by state law and serves as a check and balance for the superintendent and staff who propose the details of running the district. 

Parental and citizen control gets everyone involved in a transparent educational system and grants parents easy methods to ensure that their children are offered an individualized education.

Of course, there is a downside to each local control.

Superintendent control can lead to error due to a lack of “check and balance” and parental and citizen dissatisfaction due to being left out. 

School board control can deteriorate into superintendent control when too few board members deeply question what the superintendent establishes and/or try to control board members who do question. 

Parental and citizen control can become chaotic when the district is large and varied.

Which of the three local controls does TPS have?  Technically TPS has school board control as mandated by state law.  However, in my opinion, TPS actually has superintendent control because the school board does not provide an effective check and balance for the superintendent and staff.

I have been attending virtually every school board meeting since May 2022.  This means that I have read every school board agenda and watched as the school board conducted its public business.  I have observed the following four things.

First, very few school board members publicly ask potentially critical questions of the superintendent.  When I started attending meetings only Dr. Griffin, Dr. Marshall and E’Lena Ashley asked what I call “deep” questions which may be construed as critical questions.  I noted no consistent change when District 2 Judith Barba-Perez moved and Diamond Marshall was seated for that position. 

Second, public questions from board members appear to be discouraged.  I have repeatedly heard the superintendent tell a “deep” questioner that they should submit their questions to the superintendent before the board meeting and they will be answered. 

I have repeatedly heard Dr. Marshall object to that requirement and request that she be provided with pertinent back up information without having to ask. 

I have repeatedly heard the superintendent and the president of the board use an annoyed tone of voice when answering questions that stay on the same topic.  At times I have even heard the “debate” stopped by the board president calling for the vote.

Third, the amount and depth of information readily provided to board members appears to be limited.  Likely in response to Dr. Marshall’s request for more back up information, the information provided on the public agenda was somewhat increased.  However, she has never been offered other information without asking.   E’Lena Ashley has publicly stated that her questions are not answered even when she is told she will get the answer during the board meeting.

Fourth, the superintendent and the board president appear to discourage board members from “holding out” some items on the consent agenda so that they can record a “no” vote.  I note that board members holding out items are asked to repeat them several times and what they have clearly said is sometimes inaccurately recorded.  That must feel discouraging.

The term “rubber stamp” was used (accurately in my opinion) at the most recent board meeting to describe how most board members deal with the consent agenda.  I submit to you, dear readers, that the term “consent agenda” precisely describes what the superintendent wants the board to do: consent, say YES, to every item on that part of the agenda.

If the board were providing an effective check and balance to the superintendent, there would be:

  • more open and deep discussion about programs
  • more discussion about how to spend the district’s money
  • more polite disagreement on various items
  • more board members periodically voting “no” on things that they do not think are serving the school district well

If the board were providing an effective check and balance and the superintendent welcomed such questioning, I believe that board meetings would be regularly spent learning about and then thoroughly discussing such things as the operation of the district school police, how passing a student on to the next grade is determined, and revision of district goals.

With superintendent control of TPS there cannot be any change unless the superintendent initiates it. 

If you are happy with the academic outcomes of TPS thank Superintendent Gist. 

If you are unhappy with the outcomes blame Superintendent Gist or the school board that is supposed to be controlling her.

Getting to a form of parental and citizen control, which might just offer some useful suggestions about how to improve academics at TPS, requires that the TPS School Board operate more like the Oklahoma State School Board.  

Citizen comments encouraged, not censored by requiring the topic to be submitted well before the meeting.

  1. Citizen comments taken before an item is discussed and voted on by the board.
  2. Citizen comments permitted on both the action and consent agenda items.
  3. Citizen comments invited when board president believes the board could benefit from public information.
  4. Board members discussing items and freely asking questions.

Editor’s Note: This analysis first appeared in CityNewsTulsa.com August 16th here.

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