Tahlequah Daily Press

January 30, 2014

Bills could reduce transparency in some areas of public education

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Oklahoma lawmakers get back to work next week, and thousands of bills are slated for discussion this session.

Two bills – House Bill 3173, by Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, and Senate Bill 1577, by Sean Burrage, D-Claremore – would reduce the existing level of transparency in certain areas of public education. These measures have several local lawmakers, school administrators and teachers asking questions.

Blackwell’s bill, HB 3173, would amend the Open Records Act, creating an exemption for teachers who are in the Teacher Leadership and Effectiveness Act program. Bonuses are paid if teachers achieve high evaluations in TLE, but now, according to the bill proposal, those payments will not be made public. The evaluations themselves are already confidential, but bonus recipients’ names are public.

Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, a longtime area educator, is opposed to the idea.

“I don’t believe in keeping bonuses a secret,” said Garrison. “How would you know it doesn’t come down to petty politics? I think it can become a personality thing. Some of the best teachers I had were not the most popular. There’s a great danger in keeping the bonuses a secret.”

Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, agrees with Garrison, and said the TLE commission would be better served by an effective evaluation system.

“What happened to transparency in government?” asked Brown. “They can’t come up with an effective evaluation for a government or music teacher yet. I’m not on the education committee, but I’d be asking a lot of questions.”

Chuck Pack, Tahlequah High School Math Department chairman and Tahlequah Education Association vice president, also serves as Tahlequah Public Schools’ math curriculum coordinator and is a National Board Certified teacher. Pack qualified for a TLE bonus, but said he has yet to see a payment.

“I earned a 4.35 out of 5 points possible on 20 different qualitative measures, and I can assure you, I have not seen any bonus money come my way,” said Pack. “By law, this coming year, we’re supposed to have 50 percent of our evaluation based on quantitative, not qualitative, measures. Well, they have nothing in the way of a system for rating PE teachers, counselors, music, art and other teachers in the quantitative aspect. How is the state planning to provide for those teachers?”

Pack said he has a hard enough time getting paid his NBCT bonus, and he holds little hope for the TLE bonus.

“The Legislature isn’t keeping its promises on bonuses for National Board Certified teachers, so I’m not holding my breath on payment for TLE,” said Pack. “But I can say this: Once they do get it figured out, I want the information about who those teachers are made public. I mean, seriously, would you want to keep your valedictorian a secret? What about your state championship team? We’re supposed to lift up and recognize those who perform well, and I would want that for our teachers, too.”’

TPS Superintendent Lisa Presley believes bonus payment information should be public.

“I think this should be completely transparent,” said Presley. “We want to recognize schools and teachers that are doing well.”

Senate Bill 1577, by Burrage, would amend the Open Records Act, changing language about voluntary supplied information, and adding “institutions with the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education” to keep confidential business plans, feasibility studies, financing proposals, marketing plans and financial statements or trade secrets submitted by a person seeking economic advice, business development or customized training. This confidentiality exemption is already in place for the Department of Commerce and Career Tech schools.

Garrison said he has not yet analyzed this bill, but could understand why a level of confidentiality may be required.

“I’m an advocate of transparency, but I can see where universities competing for students may need a level of confidentiality to remain competitive,” said Garrison. “College admissions and recruitment is highly competitive. I suppose, at the end of the day, if you allow one institution to do it, you should allow it for all.”

Brown said he, too, needs to investigate the subject further, but believes in transparency.

“Unless there is a proprietary issue with the individual institution in question, we need transparency,” said Brown. “It still needs to be bid. Whether it’s a sealed bit or whatever, it needs to be made public in the end. It should be fair, open and honest.”

Ben Hardcastle, executive director of Public Relations and Marketing at Northeastern State University, said officials there are still reviewing a number of bills that may affect the institution.

“At this early stage, we are still reviewing the bills that have been filed and we will monitor progress on SB 1577 as the legislative process moves forward,” he said.