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OKCPS Board Gives Attention to School Names, DACA

September 18, 2017 - 4:05pm CDT

By Jay Chilton, CIJ

Three sites in the Oklahoma City School District—M.L. King, Jr. Elementary School, F.D. Moon Elementary School, and Oklahoma Centennial Middle School—rank among the nation’s 20 worst-performing public schools, according to an article published by NeighborhoodScout.com.

The ranking has been known since mid-July, but members of the Oklahoma City Board of Education have devoted much of their time in the late summer of 2017 to matters that they perceive represent glaring examples of social injustice—including school names and federal immigration policies.

News Channel 4 reported the poor rankings on July 14. Since then, school board members have yet to publicly address the rankings. State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister did, however, comment on the study, saying she was not surprised by the results.

“We’re dealing with the lack of mental health support for families, untreated drug addiction,” she said. “We know that Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate per capita of any state.”

Despite confirmation of academic performance well below the national average, the OKCPS Board of Education has not addressed the issue, electing rather to address issues some parents have viewed as secondary concerns to educational effectiveness.

On Aug. 16, Oklahoma City district Superintendent Aurora Lora held a press conference to announce that based on board of education interest, she would be submitting a proposal to change the names of four district schools Lora said she believes they were named in honor of high-profile military officers of the Confederate States of America. The schools are Jackson, Stand Waite, Lee, and Wheeler.

Subsequent investigations have revealed that at least two of the schools, Lee and Wheeler, have only circumstantial evidence of being named in honor of the officers who shared the same name. Steve Lackmeyer, an Oklahoma City historian and a reporter for The Oklahoman, told the members of the board during the Sept. 5 public meeting that though no definitive evidence was found in his investigations, a strong case could be made that Wheeler Elementary was named for early OKC resident James Wheeler and that Lee Elementary was named for Gen. Robert E. Lee.

However, Lackmeyer added that the evidence of Lee Elementary being named for the Confederate general was based upon a report in the Capitol Hill Beacon in which then-superintendent Arthur Parmelee was quoted as saying that he personally named the school for the general. Lackmeyer continued to say that when the neighborhood and school were being built, Lee Avenue, one block west of the school, was named for early OKC resident, Oscar G. Lee, and that fact should be taken into account.

Lora said during her press conference that she is “not interested in forcing a name change on any community that does not feel it is necessary.” But during a Sept. 5 meeting, board member Charles Henry said that public input isn't necessary.

“There is no need for community input,” he said. “I encourage the board to vote unanimously to remove these names without any need to hear from others.”

Board member Carrie Coppernoll Jacobs said she agreed with Henry. “We don’t necessarily need community meetings about whether to change the names,” she said.

Multiple concerned community members have voiced their opposition to changing the name of their neighborhood school. Principals of the schools told The Oklahoman that the name change proposal lacks support in the communities they serve.

Lora intends to present a plan to the board on Sept. 25, for engaging with the public and changing the school names at a projected cost of $50,000 each. Tim Willert of The Oklahoman reported that Kyle Sweet, an Oklahoma City attorney and a former classmate of board member Charles Henry, had pledged to pay all expenses associated with the removal of the questioned names.

On Aug. 21, board members voted unanimously (Jacobs was absent) to file a lawsuit against the Oklahoma legislature for failing to adequately fund common education. Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, R-Altus, called the litigation “a media stunt by the Oklahoma City public school district. The Oklahoma courts already have tossed out similar lawsuits on the basis that the legislature has authority to determine fiscal policy of public schools.”

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, agreed. He said district officials should “spend their time and money on being better stewards of the dollars they receive instead of filing frivolous lawsuits that blame others for their own poor leadership … stop playing political games and get back to educating students.”

On Sept. 5, Lora issued a statement in opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to rescind a Barack Obama-era executive order establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allowing some individuals who entered the country illegally as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation.

During the public meeting later that same evening, board members took turns voicing their emotions in relation to the administration’s decision to end the program, a process taking 31 minutes.

Following the meeting, CIJ asked Lora for an opportunity to ask a question. The question was deferred to a member of her communications staff. The staffer was asked if the superintendent and members of the board intended for community members to see Oklahoma City Public Schools as a sanctuary school district.

The question was in reference to a statement that declared, in part, “Immigration officials are not allowed in schools.” The position was echoed by board member Mark Mann in his comments during the board meeting. “Immigration services,” he said, “are not going to be allowed on school property, without the proper search warrant.”

The district’s website has since deleted the paragraph containing the sentence denying immigration officials access to the schools.

In response to whether Oklahoma City Public Schools was to be considered a sanctuary district, the staff member said that she did not know but that neither the written statement nor the comments of the board members had affected any policies for the school district.