TPS Candidates & Media Show Who They Are

Analysis: The Tulsa Public School (TPS) Board Candidate Forum sponsored by The University of Tulsa, The Tulsa World and The Tulsa Press Club was held in the Lorton Performance Center on February 27, 2024.

Four of the six candidates for the three TPS Board introduced themselves and fielded several questions prepared by Tulsa World employees and one prepared by TPS students.

The Candidates

  • Calvin Moniz, District 2, was reminiscent of a buttoned-down college professor of yesteryear: well-organized, scholarly, and a tad pompous. His introduction sounded rehearsed with carefully crafted talking points. He is for equitable and individualized public education, safe schools, and teaching the basics without omitting the arts.

In answering questions, he said he would hold “town hall coffee times” with parents especially since there is currently low parent engagement in his district. He addressed “representing constituents with differing political views” by recently changing his voter registration from Republican to Independent. He offered mental health support and retaining diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as essential in dealing with bullying.

Answering the question written by students from Rogers, he said he prefers in person learning because it offers needed social skill development. He agrees with others that TPS needs more security officers to stop fighting in schools and strongly stated that “we must change the culture of violence, protests and hate”.

Regarding closing or reconfiguring schools, he believes in first considering the location of the students, so they don’t have to walk far to the school.

What differs him from his opponent? He answered, “I am here”. He also noted that has served Tulsa City as a volunteer and spent a large amount of his career in helping students getting jobs.

In closing, he said that we are in the fight of our lives to protect public schools in Oklahoma. He will help TPS Superintendent Dr. Johnson to maintain local control and students get ready for real life.

  • John Croisant (incumbent), District 5, maintained his coach persona: working to help students, encouraging before correcting, and speaking “happy talk” while responding to nearly all questions. He didn’t always listen carefully to the questions being asked. His introduction joyfully emphasized his helping 200 students at Edison and now, as a board member helping 35,000 students.

In answering questions, he said that for the past four years he attended every board meeting and listens to all constituents.

He addressed “representing constituents with differing political views” by pointing out his political science and prelaw degree and his support for teaching students all points of view and true history. He explained we need to reduce class size by having more money to hire more teachers, stop the rhetoric and address the real problem in order to handle bullying.

Answering his question from Edison students, he said he demonstrates accountability and presence by always being present in the schools listening to students and parents. In discussing guns and fighting in schools he pointed out the new safety measures being used to detect guns, cameras, and secure school entrances. He also applauded the “see/share” philosophy, recommended additional school counselor input and taking to legislators.

Regarding closing or reconfiguring schools, he believes we need to find out what parents want, need more school options and more schools rather than fewer schools. As the incumbent he said he is running because under Dr. Gist’s leadership he helped develop a strategic plan that includes collecting and examining data. He has seen steady improvement and wants to continue that plan.

What differs him from his opponent? He has twenty-six years coaching soccer, was a history teacher in New Orleans, and has taught geography.

In closing, he thanked the organizers of the forum and the participants. He noted that it takes everyone to focus on student hunger, mental health, and homelessness. He added that we need all organizations to keep working and listening, so we don’t let students down.

  • Teresa Pena, District 5, appeared to be a warm, knowledgeable educator. Her introduction appeared to tumble out “from the heart” as she relayed watching chaos in the school and state in her thirty-five years teaching and administrating in TPS. Her focus is the children and local control.

In answering questions, she said she works for parental engagement adding that especially the Hispanic parents need a voice. She added that she is currently teaching Hispanic parents in the Union School District how to talk with the schools.

She addressed “representing constituents with differing political views” saying she listens to everyone because it is not about politics, it is about reading and math. To deal with bullying she offered supporting Dr. Johnson by taking bullying seriously, using counselors, and bringing in outside help. She also encouraged the audience members to get a background check, come to the schools and walk the halls to help maintain order.

Answering her question from Edison students, she said she will demonstrate accountability and being present by meeting with the student council; working with the principal, vice principal and counselors; especially listening to parents; and look at data to keep improving the great school that Edison is. To stop fighting in schools she believes that we need to build our culture, agrees that we need more security officers, and suggested talking with Tulsa Police to get more ideas. She views the “see/share” policy as useful, applauded counselors having relationships with children and said we should consult with legislators for things we may need.

Regarding closing or reconfiguring schools, she believes that the location and size of the school, the staffing, and the neighborhood community must be figured into the recommendation for change.

What differs her from her opponent? She noted her many years as a classroom teacher, her appreciation for teachers, and her experience as an academic coordinator which taught her how to look at programs and data to help teachers be strategic in their teaching.

In closing, she said that we must listen to the community, educate our children, and focus on reading.  We must also listen to our teachers and the constituents to build a better base.

  • Sarah Smith, District 6, was a willing and nervous volunteer – think PTA mom. She told us she is running because she is unhappy with the previous district 6 board member (Dr. Jerry Griffin) and with “attacks” on TPS (likely alluding to TPS accreditation issues). She stated that all children deserve public education and that she is concerned about the “drama and chaos”.

In answering questions, she said she would increase the number of PTAs and well as PTA membership in the schools to get more feedback from her constituents.

She addressed “representing constituents with differing political views” saying she agrees with John Croisant and by pointing out that this is not a partisan race. She offered following the existing policies and hiring additional school counselors as ways to deal with bullying.

In response to her question from Hale regarding how mobile devises may be used in the classroom, she stated that “we need to strike a balance” since sometimes phones should be locked up and at other times they could be used. She recommended a teacher-by-teacher policy. She said we need funding for a resource officer to monitor school safety, applauded the various safety devises in the school and having more mental health professionals available in order to stop fighting in schools.

She is against closing or reconfiguring schools. She recommends taking with families and students and trying to attract families to return to areas that may have too few students to merit a school.

What differs her from her opponent? She pointed out that she is involved with parents in schools. She goes to school activities She has been a volunteer for the past twenty years. She has served on a dozen different boards, started three PTAs and is a Reading Partner.  She sees herself as a community builder and a problem solver and she is here.

In closing, she said that parents and local control are so important.  She added that board members need to come prepared for the meetings and willing to serve on the finance committee.

  • Two candidates were missing from the forum

Maria Seidler, District 6 Your author contacted her and learned that she is not interested in participating in a forum. In her opinion there is no open environment in a forum which is primed to support one political agenda. She believes that the only way for voters to have a real choice is to see a debate. She is willing to participate in a debate.

KanDee Washington, District 2, as reported by the organizers, did not respond to multiple invitations by them. Perhaps she shares Maria Seidler’s viewpoint or perhaps she figures that her potential voters would not be attending the forum.

The Questions and a Few More Answers

  • Tulsa World staff was trying to be even handed with their questions and mostly, but not entirely, succeeded. The even handedness broke down with their questions crafted for individual candidates. The questions were written and asked by Tulsa World staff members, Andrea Eger and Lenzy Kreibiel-Burton and Editorial Editor, Ginnie Graham.

The majority of the questions were directed to all candidates and the order of respondents was carefully varied – kudos! The “all candidate” questions were a mix of “how will you function as a board member” and “you and your campaign”. 

The “how will you function as a board member” were (1) practical steps to get constituent feedback, (2) how will you represent your constituents considering their varied political views, (3) the role of the school board in addressing bullying, (4) what should be done to address guns and fights, (5) should TPS take a day off to celebrate Native American Heritage Day, and (6) what things should be considered when thinking about closing or restructuring current school sites? Note: candidate responses to most of these questions were covered at the beginning of this article.

All six questions covered things that prospective board members could reasonably be expected to have thought about. It is hard to see any of them as “gotcha” questions. Of course, it could be argued that an incumbent may have an unfair advantage due to having served as a board member. Hopefully the voting public can be trusted to take that into consideration.

The “you and your campaign” questions were (1) how many TPS board meetings have you attended in the last year, (2) three things that distinguish you from your opponent, (3) name three schools in your district, (4) what book are you reading now, (5) what is the responsibility of the school board (6) how much money do you plan to raise for your campaign, (7) what money would you not accept for your campaign, and (8) how many state school board members have you met?

Of the eight “you and your campaign” questions four (#1, #3, #5 and #8) clearly favor an incumbent. It was good to know how many board meetings non-incumbents had attended and true that the incumbent has not missed a meeting (your education editor keeps up with that).

The responses for what is the responsibility of the board were repetitive therefore not informative. How many schools a candidate can name under the pressure of an audience had little information value beyond memory under pressure. How many state school board members have you met is clearly a questionnaire’s gift to the incumbent. It’s beginning to sound like the forum sponsors have already voted, isn’t it?

The answers to question 6 and 7 were:

Candidate (last name)Money To RaiseMoney To Reject
Croisant$40,000Donor against my ideas or attacks my opponent
Moniz$15,000Donor unknown
Pena$10 – 15,000Donor against my ideas or strings attached
Smith$20,000Donor unknown or strings attached

The individual questions (paraphrased) were:

John Croisant: (1) what financial policies are needed to avoid a future “Devon Fletcher”, (2) you are the incumbent, why are you running, (3) how will you address the inequity in the number of advanced placement classes available to each high school across the district and (4) what are you hearing as you go door to door?

          Analysis: The first question played to John’s current role on the board as a proud member of the finance committee.  The second could only have been asked of him.  The third tested his concern for equity and the fourth could of (should of?) been asked of all candidates. Going door to door he hears constituents saying that their greatest concern is Ryan Walters. They want “get rid” of the rhetoric and get back to the values of no yelling, showing more respect and focusing on the kids.

Calvin Moniz: (1) is your candidacy a steppingstone to a future office, (2) how will you represent the four magnet alternative schools in your district that cannot vote in this election, (3) how much trust do you have in technology and (4) how will you get to know your constituents in this one-year term?

          Analysis: The first question suggests an actual rumor or one concocted so that he could answer “No!” as he did. The second and fourth were well targeted to his district and his situation (he is running for a one-year term and will face re-election next year). To get to know his constituents and face a quick re-election he plans a 30-day tour of all sites talking with administrators and parent groups listening and campaigning again along the way. The third question played to his background.

Your author wonders what individual questions had been planned for his opponent, KanDee Washington.

Teresa Pena: (1) what is your position on the Ryan Walters takeover threat, (2) what is your relationship with “Moms for Liberty”, (3) who recruited you, and (4) how will you use the experience gained in your number of roles in TPS?

          Analysis: The first is a question that could have been asked of every candidate, so your author wonders why this candidate was singled out for the question. Questions two and three strongly suggested addressing some rumor or rumors. Were these designed as gotcha questions? Were they designed to try to make a political point? The fourth played to the candidate’s years of experience with TPS as an employee.

For the record, her responses to the four questions were: she wants local control, does not know who the “Moms for Liberty” are, was not recruited by anyone, and believes that her experience will help her be prepared for board meetings (ask the right people the right questions, work with the superintendent to get answers, come to understand the issues and build consensus).

Sara Smith: (1) why do you want to be on the board’s finance committee, (2) what needs to be done to get Hale and its feeder school off the F list, (3) how do you compare your experience as a TPS student in the 1990’s with that of your son’s today and (4) Ryan Walters has called Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association a terrorist agency, how will you support teachers?

          Analysis: Unless the first question was written at the forum, it suggests a pre-forum candidate interview. The second was clearly and correctly related to district 6 while the third was a “soft ball” question (so the candidate could shine?). The fourth could have and maybe should have been more honestly written as “How will you support the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association” and then asked of all candidates. That is, if the forum’s organizers are interested in specifically support TCTA and not simply supporting teachers. She answered that question with reference to any meetings she might be asked to attend saying “I will go to meetings, listen, and be open. I know they [teachers] struggle”.

  • The questions written by students were pointed and were given to the candidate running to represent the high school from which the question came. John Croisant (Edison): how can you be better accountable and present? Calvin Moniz (Rogers): what is your opinion about in-person school attendance versus online? Teresa Pena (correctly a repeat of Edison question): how can you be better accountable and present? Sara Smith (Hale): how can we allow mobile devices in the classroom without hindering education?
  • The venue, Lorton Performance Center, is posh. Sadly, the size of the crowd was underwhelming. Your author is not a “certified crowd size guesser”. Therefore, I am truly guesstimating when I say, “There were around one hundred twenty people in the audience some of whom were authors and videographers”.

We clearly need to work harder to convince the voting public that school board elections have huge consequences. School board members continue to be usually elected by less than 5% of the potential voters

  • The three sponsors are sponsoring two additional forums one for Tulsa City Council Candidates and the other for Mayoral Candidates.

Dates to be announced.

I am wondering what size crowd those events will draw.  Will you be there? I plan to be.

About the author: Susan Phillips, a resident of Tulsa Public School District since May 1998, is a retired psychologist. Her husband, Michael Phillips, is a retired Tulsa Public High School math teacher.  Susan and Michael have been attending nearly all TPS board meetings since May 2, 2022. They arrive early, sit on the front row, and talk amiably with others who regularly attend. They seek to understand the various points of view held by audience members. Susan began writing about the meetings in July, 2023.

One thought on “TPS Candidates & Media Show Who They Are

  1. Donna Beekman

    Thanks so much for all this information. I know if I was voting it would greatly help my decision.

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