'We will strive to survive the Ryan Walters time': Oklahoma superintendents respond to Walters' claims, rhetoric | KGOU


Category:  News & Politics

Via:  jbb  •  last year  •  0 comments

By:   Beth Wallis (KGOU)

'We will strive to survive the Ryan Walters time': Oklahoma superintendents respond to Walters' claims, rhetoric | KGOU
Walters repeatedly emphasized his focus on open communication with superintendents around the state. But when StateImpact sent out a survey to those superintendents, a much more complex picture emerged.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

KGOU | By Beth Wallis, StateImpact Oklahoma Published May 25, 2023 at 1:20 AM CDT

Listen • 4:35 Beth Wallis / StateImpact Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks to the Board of Education at a March 2023 meeting.

Many of the headlines from reports about State Superintendent Ryan Walters' May 1 House committee hearing focused on his more inflammatory comments: terrorist teachers' unions, the previous superintendent's "dumpster fire" of an administration and common refrains of leftist indoctrination in the classroom.

But another theme also stood out: Walters repeatedly emphasized his focus on open communication with superintendents around the state.

"I've been out and all around Oklahoma," Walters said. "And done meetings with every superintendent in the state on a Zoom call."

But when StateImpact sent out a survey to those superintendents, a much more complex picture emerged.

Survey response data

Out of 190 responses, 42 said they had met with Walters in a large group, and 16 said they had met in a small group.

Asked specifically how much time they'd spent directly interacting with Walters, 150 respondents answered they'd spent zero minutes with him.

Several superintendents mentioned the Zoom meeting Walters often referenced during the hearing. They say while all superintendents were invited to the meeting, that didn't mean they were all in attendance. Survey data indicate about half of the respondents were on the Zoom call.

Moreover, respondents were quick to point out the meeting was about 15 minutes long, superintendents weren't allowed to speak, and none of the questions in the chat box were addressed. StateImpact filed an open records request for a recording of this meeting from the State Department of Education but has not received a response.

A similar Zoom meeting happened in May with the same format, but superintendents say that one was even shorter, and the chat box was disabled.

StateImpact sent the survey data to Walters' office and asked for an interview or response. Walters' spokesperson said he would respond directly to the superintendents themselves, and instructed StateImpact to disclose the names of the superintendents and their districts. StateImpact declined to reveal the sources, and despite follow up attempts, the administration never returned the request.

A black hole of no response

Rick Cobb is the superintendent of Mid-Del Public Schools, which serves around 12,500 students in the Oklahoma City area. He's been in the position for eight years and worked regularly with former State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

He said he appreciated how communicative Hofmeister was in her leadership, especially during the enormous learning curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. He pointed to her superintendent advisory committee made up of about 40-50 district superintendents at schools of all socioeconomic levels. While he didn't see eye-to-eye with Hofmesiter on certain issues, he said the back-and-forth was still invaluable.

"She listened to us," Cobb said. "And even when she didn't agree, she took our opinions to heart and tried to make good decisions. And then still try to bring people to the table, even if they were, you know, antagonistic at times."

Cobb attended the April Zoom meeting. He said Walters greeted the superintendents, told them he was available for anything they needed at any time, and touted bringing back State Department employees from remote work. Then Walters left the meeting, and the superintendents remained in the virtual room.

"We're all looking at each other like, 'What just happened?' And then one person laughed and then a bunch of people laughed. And then I decided I just need to log off before I say something," Cobb said. "But I think the consensus was that that really was a wasted opportunity. He had, you know, a whole bunch of leaders. He had over 100, I think, people in that room and missed an opportunity to really make some connections."

Despite Walters' assurance of an open door, Cobb said he's had trouble even getting a response to meeting invitations.

"It's not common for a state superintendent to just not respond to an invitation," Cobb said. "And I feel like that's important, it's important as the superintendent of public instruction to be hearing the concerns of the people leading public instruction in their communities."

Another superintendent at a rural 4A school — who requested partial anonymity out of fear of retaliation on his school district — said he served on Hofmeister's advisory committee for all eight years she was in office. He said the difference between meeting with Hofmeister and meeting with Walters was stark.

"She always wanted input," he said. "In fact, when we would have superintendent advisory meetings, when we ended up moving to Zoom, she would become a little bit frustrated if we were not talking or if we were just putting some comments in the chat. She wanted us to engage. She wanted the dialogue, and she didn't want an echo chamber."

This superintendent has also tried to invite Walters to regional meetings with education stakeholders. He said Walters responded two or three days later, saying he appreciated the invitation and would get back to him soon. That was about a month ago.

He said Walters' continued silence sends superintendents a message: they're on their own.

"It leaves you feeling a little bit isolated. It leaves you feeling like we have no input into helping solve issues that for us are very real," he said. "When you take the job of the superintendent and all the local issues with students, with parents, with your community, with funding issues that you deal with on a daily basis, and the years pile on top of that — not having any support from above at the State Department level, it becomes very discouraging and disheartening."

Asked what he thought Walters was missing out on by not attending these events, he said Walters is missing a dose of perspective.

"To be blunt, I think he misses out on reality. I mean, what we hear from the rhetoric and the issues that he talks about are not things that we deal with on the ground on a day-to-day basis," he said.

That was one of the other main themes that emerged from the survey comments: Superintendents are frustrated at the disconnect between the challenges they actually see in their communities and Walters' inflammatory rhetoric. Since being in office, Walters has accused schools of pushing pornography, that they're sites of woke, leftist indoctrination, and that they're beholden to the "Biden agenda."

"We're not dealing with folks storming the administration building or libraries over pornography in schools, over indoctrination. You know, we're dealing with real issues," the superintendent said. "And we're dealing with students who have experienced trauma, students who, coming out of COVID, have issues that we're trying to help them catch up on. We're dealing with staffing issues, and we're dealing with the reality of the teacher shortage and what that looks like on the ground. And I think he just misses out on what that's like."

'Creat[ing] dragons for himself to slay'

Matt Riggs is the superintendent of the small, rural district of Macomb. He said Walters' portrayal of schools is like a "caricature… so far outside of what is real."

"What he has done through his entire approach to public life, from what I've seen, is create dragons for himself to slay," Riggs said. "Do we have students here that, you know, some may identify in different ways? I'm sure we do. But our charge is to try to make those students' lives better. Our charge is not to make them part of some kind of political conversation."

Riggs said those dragons — leftist indoctrination, pornography pushing, terrorist teachers' unions — just don't exist. In a high-poverty area like Macomb, there are real problems, but Riggs says he doesn't see a point in bringing those issues to Walters.

"There has to be a belief that the other person sitting on the side of the table has a genuine interest and a genuine desire to make things better for you and your district. And, just going off the rhetoric, I don't know how we can line those two things up."

Mike Hedge, superintendent of Asher Public Schools, echoes Riggs' sentiment. Asher is a very small, rural school district serving about 250 students.

"In a small school like Asher, I mean, we have one teacher per section. So we're not able to offer some upper-level things to our students… We have to be creative," Hedge said. "Being able to pay people a living wage, a fair living wage [for those] that aren't certified personnel. I mean, bus drivers, you know, you're paying them nothing. You're not able to offer much. … Those are the real issues."

Despite Walters' continued absence at educator stakeholder meetings, Hedge said he still hopes for a conversation with Walters about his district's needs.

"I'd love to sit down and just talk to him and say, 'Well, this is the other side. This is what we deal with.' Because, you know, if you've never dealt with it, how do you know?" Hedge said. "How do you know what those people are going through if you don't — if you're not out there being part of it?"

Anadarko superintendent Jerry McCormick also said he holds out hope that Walters can turn his focus from the politics du jour to leading the people he serves. McCormick previously worked with Walters at McAlester Public Schools.

"I like Ryan, I still consider him a friend. But the issue that we have, I believe with him, is his lack of experience in the role of leadership. He's never been a principal, he's never been an administrator, he's never been in charge," McCormick said. "And I believe that it's really got out in front of him. I think he's having a hard time."

But McCormick's attempts to reach Walters with his concerns have also gone unanswered. He said Walters is missing the mark when it comes to effective leadership.

"For me, successful leadership is about bringing people together and being a good listener, making people comfortable to speak up. It's not achieved through fear, intimidation, negativity, name calling," McCormick said. "A good leader serves others."

McCormick said he wasn't speaking up about Walters to "beat up" on him. He wants to get past the campaign rhetoric to "work together and move forward."

"I just don't know where this division is and what's created all this decision between the superintendents and Superintendent Walters," McCormick said. "I mean, you know, first, you ran for this job. You wanted this job. You're the Superintendent of Public Instruction. I want you to lead us."


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