Oklahoma City School District officials responded with outrage Wednesday to a discussion city council members had about taking over the school district as a possible solution to lagging student achievement.
Superintendent Karl Springer called the discussion and attitudes reported in The Oklahoman "disrespectful" of the school district and the eight elected officials who govern the district.
"To disrespect them is to disrespect the concept of elected officials, not just one, but our entire body of elected officials. To me, that is unacceptable," Springer said.
"The most frustrated person in the state of Oklahoma about the lack of progress in Oklahoma City Public Schools is me. I have discovered things in this district on a daily basis that have needed to be fixed, some little, some huge. We've made a lot of progress on that list."
City council members met Tuesday to discuss big-picture goals for Oklahoma City — including improved education.
Council members expressed frustration that the inner-city district has made few academic gains in the 10 years since the MAPS for Kids assessment called for both improved school facilities and improved education quality within the buildings.
The building projects, funded by the voter approved $700 million MAPS for Kids sales tax, are nearing completion. Yet an assessment in February by the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools found that the district was "unsatisfactory" or "needed improvement" in almost all of the academic priorities established in 2001 by the MAPS task force.
"I think the city has some responsibility here in taking them to task," Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer said in the city meeting.
Suggestions for intervention included creating a task force to work closely with the school board, holding joint meetings, or even having the city taking over the district in some form of shared governance.
The last suggestion evoked a strong response from people working with the school district.
"I was really disappointed and somewhat frustrated, particularly because the mayor and I have fairly regular discussions. Our most recent was Tuesday, a week ago," board Chairman Angela Monson said. "I've been in office for 18 months now. I wish we could have just changed it on a dime, but we're there and we're getting ready to make big changes in our district."
Monson said she asked the mayor Wednesday not to pursue a task force, but rather to sit down with the school board during an already planned strategic planning process.
Wednesday, Mayor Mick Cornett distanced himself from the conversation of taking over the school district saying he "remained unconvinced that we need to start over.
"My preference would be to work with the existing superintendent and school board president. I would like the council to be a part of the conversation ... No one is satisfied with the way things are."
Springer has been in office for 28 months, and he follows a revolving door of superintendents in the district. In the past 10 years, there have been nine superintendents or acting superintendents in the district.
"By the time they would find things they need to change, it would be time for them to leave," he said.
But the solution to all the issues the district faces is not duplicated efforts with a task force, Springer emphasized, or a heavy intervention from the city.
The Oklahoma City School District is in the process of major reforms at some of the district's poorest performing schools — in part because of federal mandates.
Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, responded to the council members' comments by highlighting those reforms.
"The district and union have not shied away from needed change," Allen said from Washington in a written statement. "We are disappointed to hear that some think city governance of our schools is a needed solution."
Among those changes are longer school days, continuous school years, teacher accountability that is based on student performance rather than tenure, and a peer evaluation system that promises to make it easier for the district to identify and fire ineffective teachers.
Both Springer and Allen have said the three schools currently undergoing these reforms are pilot sites for the district.
Cornett said he would support longer school days and continuous school years for the entire district.
"Our current school schedule is based on kids getting up to help with the harvest," Cornett said. "That's more than 100 years old. We need to adapt."
Springer also pointed to curriculum reforms in both the high schools and elementary schools that are just getting under way. ACT America's Choice has been used for over a year in the high schools to increase reading and streamline the way teachers conduct their classrooms. An elementary school reform task force identified Great Expectations as the best program to improve learning in the younger grades.
These changes will take time to have an impact on student performance, Springer said, but they will have "significant results."