Positive Changes at TPS Board Meeting

Editor’s Note: This group of stories on public education in Tulsa feature curated material from CityNewsTulsa.com and City Sentinel Tulsa, the conservative print publication of the city.

Analysis: In this meeting, Interim Superintendent Dr. Ebony Johnson assumed her new role. She got off to a great start. I observed seven positive changes at the Tulsa Public School Board meeting on Monday, September 18, 2023. 

The first change appeared on the consent agenda. Perusing the online agenda before the meeting I discovered a link to the full encumbrance report and read a clear explanation of “encumbrances”. I clicked on it and to my surprise and delight, up popped the encumbrance report. Someone made a decision FOR transparency, good choice!

Later, during a staff report given by Chief Financial and Operations Officer Robles, the public learned that he will be adding information to the encumbrance report. A huge win better governance and further transparency with clarity.

Second, the board members held healthy discussions especially during the two Action Agenda items and the Goal Monitoring Report. 

I label the discussions healthy because, for the greater part of the time, board members expressed clear differences of opinion without disparaging contrary opinions. I believe such discussions lead to better solutions while building the relationships essential for continued board effectiveness. 

In addition to representing their specific constituents, each board member has something unique and valuable to add to the board’s decision making. It might be good for each board member to try to focus on the valuable thing(s) the others are adding, rather than focusing on the things they do not like about the other board members.

Third, I noticed a positive change in the behavior of two specific board members. I applaud Board Member Susan Lamkin (my representative) for asking an important question about changes in the number of openings at the PreK level. I applaud Board Member Diamond Marshall for listening to discussions with dignified politeness and for adding information regarding the impact of dyslexia on learning. 

This is all good news dear readers. Questions that bring out more useful information, respectful listening and pertinent additional information move the board in the direction of increased effectiveness. 

Fourth, Board President Stacey Woolley apologized and corrected a procedural error (voting before all the board questions were satisfactorily answered) by calling for the vote again. I have never seen this happen before and acknowledge swift, and I believe, accurate thinking on Board President Woolley’s part. Kudos!

Fifth, the level of information provided in reports and answers to questions appeared higher and more directed to the goals established by the State School Board on August 24, 2023 (finances, literacy, getting schools off the F list). 

Sixth, there were several ideas for positive community participation in an effort to improve TPS, including:

1.  Convincing parents that chronic absenteeism is a real problem that they could impact.

2.  Inviting parents to engage through their school’s PTA.

3.  Supporting the Men of Monroe.

4.  Inviting all of us to volunteer for Reading Partner’s.

5.  Inviting the City of Tulsa to help with providing Wi-Fi in underserved areas.

Seventh, Dr. Marshall asked (as she has before) for a portfolio on vendors to better be able to evaluate vendor quality before voting on accepting them. To her credit I saw Dr. Johnson writing herself a note as she listened to the request. That’s a very good sign.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything was perfect and that there are no more changes that the board needs to make for optimum effectiveness. It is a process after all. A few examples follow.

During the Goal Monitoring Report there was one serious “derailment” when Board President Woolley berated Board Member Ashley about her factual accuracy regarding the percent of students on IEPs. I missed what triggered that outburst and note that later President Woolley acknowledged that she got off track. Board members might benefit from taking a few deep breaths when they feel their emotions taking control.

The initial discussion during that same report got off to a rocky start as tempers quickly flared over (1) calling the goal a part of a strategic plan and (2) questioning what that goal had to do with reading.  It got back on track with the help of Dr. Johnson (see details below).

Readers are encouraged to watch the meeting online to see if your opinions of the progress match or differ from mine.

Meeting Summary: The meeting opened with a skillful flag ceremony proudly presented by the Central High School Junior ROTC. All board members were present and Dr. Laverne Ford Wimberly (a former TPS Interim Superintendent) was in the audience cheering Dr. Ebony Johnson on. 

The Board moved swiftly to the Consent Agenda since there were no corrections to the agenda, special presentations, or minutes to be approved. Dr. Johnson followed the new standards of reporting on the questions submitted by board members before the meeting and responded to current board member questions with the help of the TPS staff present for that purpose. Hooray!

Board members asked several pertinent questions during the meeting, one of which required staff research. Board President Stacey Woolley called for the vote on the Consent Agenda before that question was answered. The Consent Agenda passed unanimously. Afterwards the staff member answered the pending question. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Board President Woolley apologize and call for a re-vote considering the new information before the board. Good job Board President Woolley!

On to Public Comment before the Action Agenda, board discussion and votes. Yes, I know we haven’t seen this often because we rarely have items on the Action Agenda! I have always applauded this order of business – public comments before board discussion and voting. I just haven’t gotten to see it enough. 

There were two Action Agenda items: retention of special counsel and continuation of “current application and registration software from SchoolMint Inc.” through June 30, 2024.

The public commentor asked why the board was considering retaining “special” legal counsel. Of course, he knew he would not get a reply as he spoke, so he urged the board members to ask the question before they vote. He had asked a couple of board members before the meeting and neither had any idea why this was being considered.

Is it typical to place action items on the agenda without any prior board involvement or do some (not all) board members have prior involvement? In any event, the thorough discussion revealed that the special counsel was to help ensure the retention of local control over TPS operations. A careful reading of the written “Rationale” provided with the agenda item also revealed that information. Rationales are, I believe, written in what I call “legalese”. I suspect that is necessary for legal clarity.

The board discussion revealed knowledge that the danger of an OSBE (Oklahoma State Board of Education) “takeover” remains, if progress on the three OSBE goals are not made. Takeover, as used here, means replacing elected board members with citizens appointed by the OSBE to make management decisions. Schools would continue to operate as usual should this ever happen.

The discussion also tried to reassure members and the public that OSBE requirements are not shifting and that TPS is dedicated to retaining local control. The vote was five “Yes” to two “Abstain”. The abstentions were from Dr. Jerry Griffin and E’Lena Ashley.

The second item passed by acclamation after an informative discussion letting everyone know that the planned new application and registration software is not currently successfully “talking” with TPS’s student information system called PowerSchool. There will be no extra cost to TPS while this problem is resolved.  I am so happy to see finances repeatedly highlighted in this board meeting.

The next item on the agenda was a Goal Monitoring Report. The report covered interim Goal 3.2 which tracks the percentage of 10th-12th graders who meet the assessment requirements for enrolling concurrently in college and career tech courses from postsecondary institutions. Students who score at least 510 on reading or math on the PSAT or SAT are generally considered to be academically ready for the rigor of college level classes. Naturally the goal is to increase the percentage.

This was a lengthy presentation with a board discussion at every step of the way. It began with Dr. Jerry Griffin reminding everyone that TPS really does not have a “strategic plan”, rather it has a set of goals. This clearly frustrated Dr. Marshall and Vice President Croisant. It resulted in Dr. Marshall pointing out that the goals are a contract with the public who worked together with an earlier board to set them up.

My observation, having heard this discussion before, is that it is a matter of terminology: goals versus strategic plan. Dr. Johnson, using an academic or instructional tone of voice and vocabulary, pointed out that we have a celebration here since the goal is on track. She added that the goal being discussed is about top tier students and that TPS is working to see to their academic needs as well as to the needs of struggling students.

In my opinion, she was not grandstanding or commanding, rather she was persuading. With that the Board moved on to discussing the results and how TPS could do better.

During the discussion we learned a great deal about the support provided to the students through Khan Academy. In my view, Khan Academy is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to “learn things”. We made note that the college bound assessment tests have their flaws (as do all tests I might add). We heard the good news that various schools are gently and successfully nudging students to enroll in higher level classes by creating education plans that include such classes. You cannot succeed if you do not try!

The evening’s staff report was a Budget Summary Report during which we learned of the plan to provide regular updates with readily available financial information to the board and the public who attend board meetings in person or online. We also realized that there is more money available than planned due to continued vacancies in staffing. Tulsa needs more teachers.

There were four citizen comments.

1.  A teacher pointed out the difficulties caused by large class sizes. Her 3rd grade class has 29 students.

2.  I talked about the importance of students’ self-beliefs.  If you believe you can, you are most likely to succeed.

3.  A foreign language teacher opined that foreign languages (including Chinese) and the arts are as important as STEM classes.

4.  A parent told us about the successes of her child through the efforts of social emotional learning (SEL).

The board meeting concluded just before 10 pm with a brief Interim Superintendent’s Report. She provided us with a bit of her background that led her to her current job. She plans to share her 100-day plan in which she focuses on academic outcomes and parental and community involvement.  She noted that there is work to be done to educate and graduate 34,000 children. I say AMEN to that!

Our “prayer before the meeting group” was small but mighty.  We invited everyone present to join us. The prayer was not about politics, but about God blessing and guiding the work of the School Board.  We prayed for the board as a whole and drew names to pray for the specific board members and the Interim Superintendent.

Readers, steady progress is being made. I look forward to watching the OSBE meeting on September 28th at 9:30 am on their Oklahoma State Department of Education Facebook page. It will be the first time TPS reports to the State Board per the accreditation agreements.  Further reports to come.

Contributing Editor, David Arnett

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