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'They're having to fill holes': Vacancies and paperwork push Tulsa Public Schools administrators into classrooms for third straight year

At least one fifth-grade class at Celia Clinton Elementary School had two teachers for the first day of school on Wednesday. One, Robin Lemmons, a 30-year veteran of teaching who just returned to the profession, will be their teacher for all of the school year.

The other, LeeAnne Pepper, is there because Lemmons was hired late in the summer and all the paperwork hasn’t been processed. So, legally, she’s the teacher at the moment. Pepper is among the more than a dozen TPS administrators working as teachers across the city because for the third straight year, the state’s second-largest district didn’t fill all of its vacancies in time for school. Last year, Superintendent Deborah Gist was among those who taught temporarily.

Pepper was once an elementary school teacher. She became an administrator at TPS — academic coordinator for elementary mathematics — about three years ago. This is her second year returning to the classroom for the start of school, something that she relishes but she understands is a symptom of a larger issue.

“It continues to highlight the situation that we are in. When it’s a struggle just to get a teacher in a classroom,” said Pepper. “When you’re little and you go to school, you don’t think about all the other parts of teaching that are happening. What happens in front of students is such a small part of it. And the students now are very different needs than they were 20 years ago.”

The Oklahoma teaching shortage is showing no signs of slowing down despite the pay raise that just took effect for teachers. The state is on pace to have a record amount of emergency-certified teachers again this year. Districts told the Tulsa World two weeks ago that they’re still worried about vacancies. And the World reported that there are about 500 vacancies statewide.

TPS has three vacancies as of Wednesday, said Emma Garret Nelson District spokeswoman. TPS had more than 500 teachers exit the district after last year and has seen about 50 percent of its teaching staff leave over the past three years. It will potentially have 276 emergency-certified teachers this year, up about 100 from a year ago.

Lemmons is not a novice teacher. She’s a 30-year veteran attracted by the pay raise and convinced to join TPS by a friend who worked at Celia Clinton and raved about the school.

She was hired this month and noted that the school was still searching for a special-education teacher as she interviewed.

Lemmons, like Pepper, feels the situation in her classroom and the need for administrators across the district is a symptom of what’s unfolding in Oklahoma education.

“Even with the raise, the future of education in Oklahoma is still so unknown. We are in a crisis and so there are positions being filled last minute, and still. It speaks of the teacher shortage,” said Lemmons. “They’re having to fill holes and she’s (Pepper) having to be here because I was hired so late.”

'For us, the name means everything': School year begins at Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy

Brandon Banks Jr., a first-grader at Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy, was excited for just about “everything” on his first day of school. His mother, Brandy Gildon, was excited for his first day at Wayman Tisdale Academy because of the name in particular.

She described it as the highlight of the family’s decision to enroll Brandon in his neighborhood school and leave College Bound Academy. Gildon said she went to school with the daughters of Tisdale, the late NBA player and musician, and saw firsthand his greatness.

Gildon said her son has ambitions in fine arts and basketball and having someone such as Tisdale to look up to will help “further his goals.”

Tens of thousands of students made their way back into class at Tulsa Public Schools on Wednesday. At four schools, Tisdale, Council Oak, Unity Learning Academy and Dolores Huerta, students walked into schools bearing new names.

As Brandon and his mom made their way inside, Tisdale Principal Elaine Buxton welcomed each child who walked through the door with a loud “hey, baby” or a hug. To Buxton, the name change couldn’t have come soon enough.

She’s starting her fifth year at the former Chouteau Elementary and noted that the school had been named after Jean-Pierre Chouteau, who had “done some derogatory things.”

“For us, the name means everything,” said Buxton. She said Tisdale had struggled and persevered, and that was something her students could learn from “no matter what they’re going through.”

Buxton also said it’s important for her diverse school to be named after someone of color.

“So many images of minorities aren’t positive.”

Across town, the school formerly known as Lee adjusted to its new name Council Oak Elementary. TPS asked that the Tulsa World not show up at Lee to give the community some space after months in the spotlight. It’s also one of the highest-performing schools in the district and its principal has some nuanced views on how the new name will affect its performance.

“The easy answer would be it doesn’t. But the reality is that academic performance, I believe is partially a result of a school’s climate and culture,” said Aubrey Flowers, the principal. “But it isn’t all. A school name helps root in an identity, which plays into the climate and culture. But it doesn’t deliver academics.”

It has been a trying year for Council Oak, and the school faces the challenge of coming together under the new name. The school was renamed twice. First, it went from Robert E. Lee Elementary to Lee School and then from Lee School to Council Oak Elementary after the first change angered some. The removal of Lee has angered others who feel like the history of the 100-year-old school is being taken away.

“It’s not necessarily a connection to the person whom the school was named after,” said Flowers. “It’s a connection to the community. That school community works really hard to supplement and partner with teachers and make the school what it is today.

“Lee was part of that identity and what I believe has been so challenging for many that is that this feels like a loss of that, a loss of that journey.”

Was it worth it?

“At the end of the day we are there for our children and we are there for the experiences of our children and this conversation has to be had in order to provide the very best education we have for our children,” said Flowers.

Early voting for Tuesday's runoff elections begins Thursday

Early voting for Tuesday’s runoff elections begins Thursday.

Registered voters may cast their ballots early at the Tulsa County Election Board, 555 N. Denver Ave., or at the Hardesty Library, 8316 E. 93rd St.

Hours are:

8 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Registered Democrats and independents may vote in Democratic runoffs; registered Republicans may vote only in Republican runoffs.

Runoffs that will be decided include the Republican candidate for governor; Democratic and Republican candidates for Congressional District 1; Republican candidates for state attorney general and Tulsa County district attorney; Republican candidates for corporation commissioner and labor commissioner; and several state House, Senate and Tulsa City Council candidates.

Council candidates are nonpartisan, and all registered voters in districts with contested races may vote, regardless of party affiliation.

For complete coverage of the election, go to

Medical professionals want stricter rules on medical marijuana, others cite ignorance about benefits of cannabis

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two medical professionals — one a former state representative — told a legislative working group Wednesday that they favor stricter medical marijuana regulations.

But 11 residents who addressed the working group in public comments afterward contended that the physicians’ comments prove they simply aren’t knowledgeable about the benefits of cannabis.

Former Rep. Doug Cox, a retired emergency room physician who works with the Wyandotte Nation, talked about his desire to see certain language stricken from the law created by State Question 788 — and in the process drew pointed criticism from House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, a co-chairman of the bipartisan, bicameral working group.

Cox, speaking for himself only and not on behalf of the Wyandotte Nation, told the group he was disappointed in the state Board of Health’s Aug. 1 decision to do away with controversial emergency rules he supported.

The Health Board had adopted regulations on July 10 that, among other things, banned smokable marijuana sales and required that each dispensary have a pharmacist on-site. They were among the rules that were then eliminated on Aug. 1.

In a subsequent question-and-answer session, Echols said he was “worried” about what he viewed as Cox’s implication that the Legislature should override the will of voters who supported SQ 788 and who protested the board’s earlier actions.

“I personally think that’s dangerous,” he said.

Echols, R-Oklahoma City, helped write HB 2154, also known as Katie and Cayman’s Law, which passed in 2015. It legalized clinical trials using cannabidiol, or CBD, for ailments such as epileptic seizures. He credited the move with helping keep his niece, for whom the law is partly named, alive.

“I think the language of 788 is so broad that it’s up to the Legislature to fill in the blanks,” Cox responded. He complimented the work done to enact HB 2154 but said that bill was successful in large part because it addressed the use of a marijuana extract that does not alter moods, unlike SQ 788.

“And I support that,” said Cox, who publicly opposed SQ 788 as it appeared before the June 26 election. “And I hope the Legislature will fill in the gaps in 788 and narrow it down to the non-mood-altering forms.”

After spectators groaned during his negative characterization of “chronic pot users,” Cox pointed to a bill he wrote while in the Legislature authorizing the use of Maridol, another such extract, by cancer patients as indicative of his support for alternative medicine.

Sarah Wilhour, a patient advocate, also asked the Legislature to take action. She said in her public comment address that a special session would help clear up outstanding issues in the law and make the process smoother for patients.

“I want to find the potential I know exists in this plant to cure people and relieve them of illness and injury,” Wilhour said.

Mike Mullins, a Norman-based anesthesiologist, expressed numerous concerns about what he said was a lack of substantive language defining the physician-patient relationship.

“The way this is set up, the personal relationship with a physician is probably not going to be there. It’s probably going to be more along the lines of us brokering licenses to consumers,” he said.

But because marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under federal law, Mullins told the working group, “We’re locked up” legally because “that forbids us from having a discussion with a patient about anything concerning this.”

However, patient advocate Lawrence Pasternack noted during his public comments that a federal appeals court ruled more than 15 years ago that it is unlawful to punish medical professionals for simply discussing the risks and benefits of marijuana with patients.

Pasternack spent much of his time at the podium calling for both doctors and lawmakers alike to do adequate research on cannabis, as did fellow patient advocate Ray Jennings, a member of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority Food and Safety Board.

Cox and Mullins both said evidence on the benefits of cannabis use is largely anecdotal because, as a Schedule I substance, there isn’t a lot of research on it. Pasternack countered that he found nearly 20,000 search results in a professional medical database for items containing the word “cannabis.”

Both doctors appeared to share the view that SQ 788 will allow for recreational marijuana use in all but name. Although Mullins said he would take no issue with a vote of the people on recreational marijuana legalization, Cox asserted that there are good reasons for marijuana to remain a Schedule I substance.

Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said he believes in the medicinal benefits of CBD and THC, another marijuana component, based on observations of family members. He asked Mullins and Cox if they believed those were ineffective treatments, to which Cox said he thinks doctors can treat people with “the arsenal (of drugs) we already have.”

“I fear opening up a Pandora’s box” with marijuana, as the law doesn’t allow for adequate dosage control and there isn’t enough research on side effects, he said.

Cox said his experiences as a lawmaker led him to believe that most people who end up in court-ordered rehabilitation or incarcerated for drug crimes used marijuana as an “entry-level” substance.

“We all know, for lack of a better term — I don’t want to offend anybody — potheads lay around and smoke marijuana all the time, and that’s their main goal in life is to decide where they’re gonna get their next hit,” Cox said. He said that didn’t apply to all users but that “we all know some of those people.”

He later said he was “fearful” of those who say marijuana is “not that bad,” and he predicted that the state will spend more to address abuse than it will receive in revenue from legalization.

But Jennings, a stage IV cancer survivor who used concentrated oils for symptom management, urged the working group to read about a patent related to the potential use of non-mood-altering cannabinoids granted in 2003 to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“If you can’t at least do that, then you have no right to represent me or anybody else in this state,” he said.