Commentary: Desperate for a seat at the table, Oklahomans wait hours to get into education meetings

In the spirit of the law, everyone has the right to see public decision-makers at work

September 8, 2023 5:29 am
A line of people hold signs that read "Thank you state Superintendent Ryan Walters" and "Stop the state takeover."

People wait in line to enter an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting in August. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — What’s happening outside the state Board of Education meetings these days has become as big a flashpoint — and as newsworthy — as what’s happening inside. 

For months now, hundreds of Oklahomans have begun lining up at 4 a.m. to stand in long winding lines in hopes of securing one of a few handfuls of seats inside the boardroom where a largely-appointed panel is making critical decisions that impact their communities and local schools.   

Many Oklahomans are waiting hours only to be barred from entry due to capacity reasons, as Carmen Forman recently reported.  

Scuffles have broken out. In June, two men were charged with obstructing or impeding passage into a meeting after they reportedly tried to control who was entering.  

Traditionally, Oklahomans have largely skipped state education meetings. People could show up late and still get a seat in the 49-person capacity board room. 

But those days are gone. 

Oklahomans are frustrated by lagging student outcomes. A ranking of 49th in the country is no longer good enough. They’re annoyed that the state leaders can’t seem to figure out how to keep quality teachers in the classrooms. And they’re deeply passionate about what children are being taught, that they’re literate and that they’re prepared for the workforce. 

Interest in the future of Oklahoma’s public schools is at a fever pitch, and residents are desperate for a seat at the table.  

But you wouldn’t know that from the State Department of Education’s seemingly lackadaisical reaction to the continued meeting access issues. 

Superintendent Ryan Walters said that the agency has created a 25-person overflow room and is broadcasting the meeting for those standing in the lobby. 

One open meetings advocate says Walters’ agency is technically complying with the letter of the law. The Open Meeting Act doesn’t explicitly require that meetings occur in a place with enough space for everyone who shows up.

But as Joey Senat noted, ensuring there is enough room for everyone exemplifies the spirit of the Open Meeting Act. The law contains only the minimum acceptable standards. 

Walters acknowledges that he’s looking for larger space but hasn’t yet finalized an agreement. Paying for a larger space is an issue, he said, along with finding a place large enough to accommodate the ever-swelling audiences. 

Oklahomans are closely watching to see how he proceeds.

Because ironically, the ongoing lack of access has unified Walters’ supporters and critics in a way that nothing else has. They share an ardent belief that the meetings need to be moved to a larger venue.

After all, public meetings aren’t supposed to have a hint of exclusivity or reward those that have the luxury of getting up early to wait for hours in line.  

They’re supposed to be accessible to anyone who wants to attend. 

Nothing can replace being there in person. Not even overflow rooms.

Oklahomans deserve the right to look a public official in the eye as they prepare to make votes that could dramatically impact their child’s quality of education, the livelihood of thousands of school employees or the lifeblood of a small community.


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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.