The last several years have seen encouraging advances in government openness and accountability in Tulsa. We've had a democratic revolution on the Tulsa City Council, and with two new County Commissioners, I'm hopeful of seeing similar improvements at the County Courthouse.
Part of the credit is due to TGOV (cable channel 24), which televises the meetings of the City Council, the planning commission, the Board of Adjustment, and several other city boards.
But just having the information out there doesn't do any good if no one is paying attention. Urban Tulsa Weekly, local talk radio, and local bloggers have played an important role by filtering the raw information, highlighting the most significant bits, and putting them in context.
Bloggers like David Schuttler (www.tulsaworld.cc) and Steve Roemerman (roemerman.blogspot.com) have even filled the gaps in TGOV and mainstream media coverage by doing their own videotaping and reporting for key meetings.
The result is that Tulsans are aware and engaged in city government like never before. The actions of Tulsa's officials are under public scrutiny like never before.
We need the same sort of democratic revolution on the Tulsa school board. Some Tulsa voters will have a big say this coming Tuesday in how quickly that will happen.
While board meetings are televised on the TPS's cable channel, many of the board members act like no one is watching. (The Tulsa Chiggers blog -- chiggers.blogspot.com -- is the only website I've found with a focus on our public schools.)
I watched the board's recent debate over a policy resolution that would have put charter schools under even heavier burdens than they already face. The Tulsa district has three charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently administered.
Charter schools provide an important element of choice for parents in a district where so many schools (including seven of nine high schools) don't meet national standards.
Only two board members, Oma Jean Copeland and Lana Turner-Addison, argued against the resolution and defended charter schools. They were the only two board members who seemed to be motivated by a concern that students receive a good education.
The other board members seemed more interested in defending the school district and the administration as an institution. There was a disingenuous quality to their remarks that made me think the decision had already been made behind closed doors.
They hid their hostility to charter schools behind a mask of constitutional questions -- the state law limits charter schools by district size and geography -- but the mask slipped when board member Cathy Newsome said that the state law discriminated against large districts by allowing them to have charter schools.
The school board ought to represent the interests of students, parents, and taxpayers, acting as a watchdog over the superintendent and his administration. Instead, five of the seven Tulsa school board members regard themselves as servants of the administration, an attitude symbolized by the superintendent sitting right next to the chairman at board meetings, in a position of power rather than accountability.
On February 13, voters in Board District 1, the western part of the Tulsa school district will be able to make some progress toward openness and accountability in public education. Long-time Booker T. Washington social studies teacher Brenda Barre, now retired, is challenging PR consultant Gary Percefull, the incumbent.
Board District 1 includes downtown, everything west of the Arkansas River, everything west of downtown along the Sand Springs Line, the Tulsa Country Club area, Brady Heights, and 11th to 21st Streets between Utica and the river.
It includes areas served by Webster and Central High Schools and Clinton and Madison middle schools.
Brenda Barre spent all but a year of her 30-plus year teaching career in the Tulsa Public School system, 29 of those years at Booker T. Washington High School. She began teaching there in 1969 and was active in the fight to keep the school from being closed in the early '70s.
As a social studies teacher and department head, Barre was involved in the process of developing Washington as a magnet school, laying a foundation that put BTW into the top 100 schools in the country in the 2005 Challenge Index, a rating based on the depth and variety of its academic offerings.
Barre believes that the district should take a proactive and welcoming attitude to charter schools, working with the legislature to fix any constitutional defects in the law so that charter schools can continue on a firm footing.
And Barre would support the creation of new charter schools. As someone who put her own children through Tulsa Public Schools, she understands parents' desires to give their children the best possible education. The way to deal with competition, in her view, is not to shut down charter schools, but to make the regular public schools even better.
If elected, Barre would bring a depth of experience and historical perspective that no other board member possesses.
The incumbent, Gary Percefull, has been little more than a rubber stamp for the administration during his four years on the board. Some recall how he sat stone-faced as parents expressed their concerns about the 2005 decision to change school starting times, a decision made just a month before the start of the school year, giving parents little time to alter arrangements for before- and after-school childcare. Parents were not just disappointed in his vote; they felt Percefull wasn't even listening to them.
Percefull has been a consistent vote against new charter schools and against cooperation with the district's existing charter schools. But with an election on the horizon, he has altered his stance slightly. He was the only board member not to speak during the January debate over the anti-charter school resolution. He did vote against the resolution, but only after it was clear that it would pass without his vote.
Politically, Percefull is aligned with former Cockroach Caucus councilors David Patrick and Tom Baker, having served as campaign manager for both of them. Percefull demonstrates that same indifference to the concerns of citizens that characterized Baker and Patrick's time on the City Council.
Percefull has been under fire for claiming endorsements that he didn't have. Without their permission, he placed the names of State Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre and City Councilor Maria Barnes on his website as supporters, but had to remove the names after the two protested.
Eason-McIntyre is actively supporting Barre, as is Jabar Shumate, who succeeded Eason-McIntyre as District 73 State Representative; Barnes is not making an endorsement in the race.
I don't think Brenda Barre and I are on the same page on national issues, and I suspect that she and I won't see eye to eye on every local issue. But the school board needs more members who see their primary role as representing the interests of taxpayers, students, and parents.
As a board member, Brenda Barre will question the administration, ask tough questions, and bring issues of curriculum, discipline, educational philosophy, and administrative policy out from behind closed doors and into the light of public scrutiny.
Turnout in school board elections is usually pathetic -- about a thousand voters, even though the board districts are bigger than State House districts. If you aren't a teacher, a public school parent, or a prospective parent, you may be inclined to ignore this election.
But if you're concerned about the City of Tulsa's competitiveness with its suburbs, if you're concerned about the vitality of inner-city neighborhoods, you should show up at the polls on February 13. Many young families start out in Tulsa's older neighborhoods, but when their children approach school age, they start looking to the suburbs.
These families hate to leave behind the shaded streets and the classic homes of Tulsa's traditional neighborhoods, but their children's education comes first. When they leave for the 'burbs, they take their property tax and sales tax dollars along with them, along with the life that small kids bring to a neighborhood.
These parents simply want to be in a district where there are good educational choices available and where the concerns of parents are respected by the board and the administration.
The Tulsa district calls itself "the District of Choice," and once was the best district in the region. Electing Brenda Barre to the school board is an important step toward creating a culture of openness, responsiveness, and accountability in the school administration, helping to make the Tulsa school district once again a district of choice for young families.
Share this article: