A Tulsa Public Schools attorney questions whether the decision to downgrade the district’s accreditation complied with the state’s public notification requirements.
Citing a 2021 decision by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, TPS General Counsel Jana Burk said at the Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting on Thursday that the council’s vote in July to accredit the district with a warning — a harsher punishment than “with shortcomings,” as recommended by the Oklahoma State Department of Education — was taken in violation of the state’s open meeting law.
“What is unquestionably problematic and a violation of the Open Meeting Act is that the agenda item did not inform the public that the board may consider accreditation decisions other than those recommended, especially the more severe ones,” Burk said.
The board at Thursday’s meeting denied TPS’s request to reconsider its decision on the district’s accreditation status.
As posted, the agenda of the July 28 meeting of the state school board lists “discussion and possible action on school district and site accreditation recommendations for the 2022-2023 school year.”
Although a separate agenda item is listed for the accreditation status of a private school based in Oklahoma City, there is not one for Tulsa or Mustang, the other school district whose Accreditation status was downgraded from what was recommended by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. due to alleged violations of the law created by the House Bill 1775.
Passed in 2021, the law prohibits teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior to another. It also prohibits students from feeling guilty or uncomfortable because of their race or gender, as well as teaching that anyone is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or not.
TPS was penalized for an August 2021 professional development session about implicit bias offered to teachers by a third-party vendor after a science teacher at Memorial High School filed a complaint, claiming the training had a section that “includes statements that specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racist in nature.
Mustang self-declared a violation involving willful activity intended to teach empathy in a single middle school class.
Accreditation recommendations for TPS and Mustang, as well as other districts, charter schools and individual campuses across the state, were published in a 333-page Excel spreadsheet.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court held in April 2021 in Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Norman that the City of Norman violated the Open Meetings Act when it did not include proposed budget changes for the Norman Police Department on the June 2020 City Council agenda. These amendments were approved, resulting in a six-figure budget reduction for the Sûreté Normande.
The Norman agenda in question specifically listed capital and operating budgets for other entities and 11 other proposed changes as attachments, but not all three for the police department. This in turn prompted the state Supreme Court to rule that the agenda had failed to give sufficient public notice and “created a false implication that Council activity would be limited to passing or rejection of the budgets, subject only to the amendments listed”.
“It’s analogous to what happened to us last month,” Burk said. “Your credentialing agenda item did not inform the public that the board may consider and approve credentialing statutes different from those recommended.”
Under Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act, any vote taken in violation of that law, such as the Norman Police Department budget-slashing amendments that were at the heart of the Oklahoma Supreme Court case in 2021, is considered invalid.
Kathryn Gardner is a Tulsa-based attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance on freedom of information issues.
Speaking in broad terms, Gardner reiterated that while state law does not set out a jurisdictional threshold, posting requirements under the Open Meetings Act require agendas to be written. in language that the average person can reasonably understand and base their actions on.
“The recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision in the Norman case is illustrative because in that case, it’s not like there isn’t a reference to a budget on the agenda” , she said. “They said they would consider one.
“However, in taking action on these amendments, it is an example of the dividing line the courts are prepared to draw in a case where someone has not completely deviated from the agenda, but the discussion and actions of the meeting certainly go beyond what was contemplated by the public notice that was provided.
As of the close of business Friday, no litigation had been filed by either of the docked districts, and neither is listed as a party to an ongoing federal lawsuit in the Western District of the Oklahoma challenging the constitutionality of HB 1775.
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