By Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin
Boards of Education in two public school districts dramatically reversed themselves last week, presenting an early Christmas present to a few state students and parents – and a gratifying legal victory to state Rep. Jason Nelson, who represents parts of the MidCity area at the state Capitol.
After earlier defiance, two local school boards in northeast Oklahoma have now agreed to authorize local implementation of Nelson’s bill, the historic special needs scholarship program.
At a board of education meeting in Owasso, members voted Thursday (December 16) to reverse a controversial decision to defy the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships Program. Then, on Friday, the board in Bixby took a similar step.
The Henry scholarships allow families with special education children previously enrolled in public schools options to remain or switch to a private provider, with the money following the child.
Members of the two boards said they were switching from opposition to support because legislative sponsors had agreed to 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 Owasso 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.”
In an interview just hours before the Bixby district’s action, state Rep. Nelson told The City Sentinel, “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.”
Rep. Nelson has outlined 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 defiance of Lindsey’s Law. He is a leading partner at the controversial Rosenstein Fist Ringold law firm opposing the law, although it was “vetted” by both the state Education Department and Governor Brad Henry. The law firm’s surging legal fees are being scrutinized.
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.