Dozens of people line up in front of the State Department of Education building ahead of August’s monthly board meeting. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Howe knew he had to get in line early just to have a chance at one of the few seats at the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday.
So, the 74-year-old retired Tulsa Public Schools educator arrived before dawn in the hopes of urging the board to support public schools with the fate of Oklahoma’s largest district hanging in the balance.
State education board meetings have traditionally attracted little interest, but Superintendent Ryan Walters’ controversial positions have drawn huge crowds to the monthly meetings.
In recent months, many have found themselves waiting hours in line only to be barred from entering the meeting room for capacity reasons or relegated to overflow spaces within the building.
Walters’ supporters and critics alike are united in agreement that the meetings should be moved to a larger venue. People trying to attend have complained for months about the lack of space and access. They point to an Oklahoma open meetings law that’s supposed to help protect their right to observe public officials as they make consequential decisions.
“It’s confusing to me that this department represents 700,000 children, which works out to be about 1.4 million parents,” Howe said. “Those are the stakeholders, and they have a room for 49 people. Something doesn’t compute.”
Walters said he’s taking steps to address the frustrations.
After the state fire marshal determined only 49 people could safely fit in the board’s meeting room and adjacent hallway, the Walters administration made accommodations to fit more visitors in other parts of the building by creating a 25-person overflow room and by broadcasting the meeting for those standing in the lobby.
“It’s the people’s building. It’s the right of the people to participate in democracy, and that should be easy.”
– Preston Bobo, of Stillwater
But some say those accommodations aren’t enough.
“It’s the people’s building,” said Preston Bobo, of Stillwater. “It’s the right of the people to participate in democracy, and that should be easy.”
He left the overflow room ahead of the board’s July meeting to watch a livestream at the nearby Oklahoma Education Association office.
Walters said he plans to move the meetings to a bigger space soon but hasn’t yet been able to finalize an agreement.
“We are actively in talks with some other venues,” he said. “Right now, we’re comparing prices and what that would look like with the audience that shows up.”
Thursday’s meeting drew perhaps the largest crowd yet to the Oliver Hodge building in Oklahoma City. A winding line of visitors began forming outside the building at 4 a.m. Many attendees were interested in a vote on the accreditation status of Tulsa Public Schools and whether the state would take over control of the district.
While the crowd at Thursday’s meeting was peaceful, two months ago, two men were arrested for obstructing or impeding passage into the June board meeting after a skirmish broke out as members of the public filed into the room.
State law requires government bodies to give advance notice of any meetings and stipulates all meetings must be open to the public.
The state’s Open Meeting Act doesn’t explicitly require government bodies to meet in a place that has enough room for everybody who shows up, said Joey Senat, an open government expert and associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University. But making sure there is ample room for all who would like to attend is in the spirit of the act, he added.
“The law and the principles of good government are two different things,” Senat said. “The Open Meeting Act provides the minimum standards of behavior — what the public body must do and must not do. Principles of good government, the spirit of the act, would call it to do more.”
During the pandemic, state lawmakers temporarily amended the Open Meeting Act. The Attorney General’s Office then put out guidance on those changes that said public bodies could not use fire codes or public health emergencies to limit the number of people attending government meetings, Senat said.
Former Attorney General Mike Hunter’s Office advised public bodies to look for larger meeting spaces or have designated overflow rooms just in case.
Senat said it appears the Walters administration is trying to make accommodations for the growing number of people seeking to attend board meetings.
At the July board meeting, Tori Caswell, of Stillwater, who was dressed like a handmaid from the dystopian novel and TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” watched the proceedings with a crowd of people in the lobby of the Department of Education.
Both Caswell and Michael Jones, a Walters supporter from Oklahoma City, agreed that a larger meeting venue would be more appropriate.
On Thursday, state legislators and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum were relegated to an overflow room.
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said it was his first time in six years that he couldn’t get a seat in the main meeting room.
“The eight (lawmakers) that were here, we represent 35,000 people each,” McBride said. “I think maybe we should have been in there.”
A vocal critic of Walters, McBride chairs a powerful House education budget committee.
Walters said the Open Meeting Act is top of mind as the agency makes adjustments to fit more people.
“We always want to accommodate everyone and do all we can to bring that transparency to the public,” Walters said.
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