A principal stood before the Oklahoma City School Board last week and, under intense questioning, spoke a simple but profoundly important truth: Status quo isn't good enough.
“We're just not satisfied with it not being not broken,” said Aspasia Carlson, the John Marshall Mid-High School principal since 2011. Carlson attended the meeting to ask the board's blessing to allow John Marshall, which serves students in grades six through 12, to become an enterprise school.
She was met with unbridled support from District 1 board member Bob Hammack but skepticism from other members. The board eventually approved the proposal, subject to contract negotiations. Three members (Ruth Veales, Jay Means and Ron Millican) voted no.
Enterprise schools are public schools that operate under contract with the school district. They have their own governance board that typically has more control over issues such as hiring. Enterprise schools aren't as independent as charter schools. Employees of enterprise schools work for the school district and are subject to the negotiated union contract.
Questioning and debating any proposal that comes before them is the job of school board members. It's their duty as stewards of the public school system, protectors of taxpayer investment and champions for 40,000-plus children. But the board's debate in this case raised a serious question as to what it is they are championing for the students.
“If the system is not broken, why are we trying to fix it?” Millican, a former school administrator, asked. How could a board member, with a straight face, claim the system isn't broken?
Carlson answered that the school wants to improve its C rating to a B and eventually an A. The proposal to become an enterprise school came from the school's community advisory board. Although such boards aren't active at many schools, they were designed to promote community involvement and support school improvement efforts.
The school board can't have it both ways. It's arrogant to charge the community advisory boards with fulfilling their mission and then criticize them for developing and trying to execute a plan with the best interests of the students in mind. Worth noting: The proposal came to the board with a recommendation for approval from district staff.
One point of contention is language that would allow Carlson more freedom in hiring decisions. The proposal calls for her to keep about 90 percent of the school's existing staff, which means some teachers may not be rehired. Some board members were worried that subpar teachers would be forced on other schools.
Until those hiring decisions are made, the outcome is difficult to predict. What if some John Marshall teachers don't have the right certifications for the school to move forward with its finance academy focus? What if some teachers truly aren't up to the task and Carlson has her eye on more effective teachers? Moving subpar teachers happens all the time in Oklahoma City and other school districts. It's a prime indicator of a broken system. This isn't fair to the kids or the teachers who must pick up the slack.
This isn't a new issue for the school district. It rears its head time and again, whether the focus is on charter schools or schools getting federal school improvement funds. The issue of teacher quality is much bigger than John Marshall and its enterprise school proposal. The school board would do well to delve deeply into this issue sooner rather than later, and let the school and community leadership group get on with the business of fulfilling their vision for a better John Marshall.