Bixby, Owasso school boards reverse defiance of special needs program

By Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin

Published: 18-Dec-2010

Boards of Education in two Oklahoma public school districts dramatically reversed themselves this week. They have now agreed to authorize local implementation of the historic special needs scholarship program the Legislature passed earlier this year.

At the
board of education meeting in Owasso, members voted Thursday (December 16) to reverse a controversial decision to defy implementation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships Program.

Henry scholarships allow families with special education children previously enrolled in public schools options to remain there or to switch to a private provider for their student, with the money following the child.

In discussions with reporters and others, members of the board indicated they were switching from opposition to support because legislative sponsors had agreed to make changes in the law. However, the principal sponsor of the law had already listed possible revisions in closing legislative debate last spring, and in both of the interim studies focused on the new statute, also known as Lindsey’s Law.

The new posture from the Owasso board came after a local attorney had begun a
Writ of Ouster against the board members. In a letter to Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Gordon Cummings had characterized the board’s prior position as “willful misconduct.”

Owasso superintendent, Dr. Clark Ogilvie, remarked at the beginning of Thursday evening’s meeting, “It is now my understanding that the bill’s author, Rep. Jason Nelson, … and of course he’s here this evening. It’s my understanding that he has reserved a shell bill in the coming session for possible amendments to House Bill 3393 and that indicates to me that he has a willingness to amend portions of the law that were most concerning to school districts across the state of Oklahoma, including ours.”

Ogilvie continued, “And, as a result, as a show of good faith to Rep. Nelson and other legislators who will be taking action on this matter in the coming months I would recommend that the Board rescind its action from October 12.”

On a tape of the brief meeting, obtained by CapitolBeatOK, the board chairman can be heard asking members, “Is there any discussion or comments?” A member of the panel replied: “I think it was well said. I move we vote to rescind the resolutions we adopted by the board at it’s meeting October 12, 2010 in regard to House Bill 3393.”

The motion was seconded, a roll call was taken the new position passed unanimously.

In an interview this week, just hours before a second district took similar action, state Rep. Nelson told CapitolBeatOK, “I’m excited for the students and their parents who will now be able to receive the benefits provided in House Bill 3393. They were put in a very stressful situation — they transferred their kids to an approved private school and followed all the requirements of the law only to have the district trap them in financial limbo because the school board voted to not follow the law.”

In Bixby, the local board of education on Friday night followed Owasso’s lead, also reversing its position against processing applications for Henry Scholarships. According to a
report from the Tulsa World, Bixby board members claimed they were taking the step because of a new willingness to “revisit” the legislation next year.

Two previous
interim studies of the new law have been held, and Rep. Nelson has outlined a few possible revisions to the historic law, including shifting responsibility for program oversight to the state Department of Education and clarifying existing provisions protecting public school districts from liability.

Other districts that voted this fall to defy the new law include Broken Arrow, Jenks,Tulsa and Union.

Doug Mann, lawyer for both the Broken Arrow and Jenks public school systems, has guided the regional (Tulsa area) school boards’ defiance of Lindsey’s Law. He is a leading partner at the controversial
Rosenstein Fist Ringold law firm, which has guided resistance to the measure, although it was “vetted” by both the state Education Department and Governor Brad Henry. The law firm’s surging legal fees have been the subject of scrutiny in reports from the Broken Arrow Ledger.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, who presided over her last state board of education meeting this past week, has
criticized the local school boards for violating their oaths of office in the controversy.