Editor's note: Story was updated 4/1/2021 with public statements released by Oklahoma City Public Schools and Chris Brewster, president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association.
The first of possibly several legal challenges to a settlement deal by four members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education who are intent on increasing state funding to charter schools was filed Wednesday.
Oklahoma City Public Schools went to district court and filed a petition challenging the state board’s authority in the matter and seeking a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction to block any reallocation of revenue that currently flows only to traditional public schools.
The petition also seeks declaratory judgment about how Oklahoma statutes and the state constitution’s provisions on school funding should be interpreted, as well as the State Board of Education’s authority.
Over the strongly voiced objections of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and against the advice of its own legal counsel, the State Board of Education split 4-3 on March 25 in voting to settle a years-old lawsuit by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association seeking an equal share of revenues from Oklahoma’s gross production, motor vehicle and rural electrification association tax collections, state school land earnings and county tax collections.
“In this case, the law regarding the funding of charter schools and school districts is clear. The Legislature has provided for differing mechanisms by which each legal entity is funded as well as operated,” Oklahoma City’s petition states. “For (the State Board of Education) to agree to a settlement which would authorize charter schools to receive funds generated by local tax levies would be an action beyond the scope of (the State Board of Education’s) authority.
“The fact that the money in question in this case is public money levied by public school districts makes it all the more important to take steps to protect those funds from an improper reallocation. OKCPS has a fiduciary duty to protect the taxpayer’s money and is exercising its legal rights in order to protect the funds levied by OKCPS for operation of its school sites from being expended for the support of charter schools.”
District spokeswoman Beth Harrison called the state board's actions "unexpected, sudden and unlawful" after no movement in the lawsuit for a full year and said neither the Oklahoma City or Tulsa districts were made aware of the proposed resolution despite both being intervening parties in the case.
"It is unfortunate that because of the State Board’s overreaching action we are forced to continue directing our limited time and resources to address an issue that is clearly unlawful and not in the best interest of the more than 700,000 students who attend traditional public schools in Oklahoma. OKCPS remains committed to protecting the financial resources necessary to serve our students," Harrison said in a Thursday press statement.
Hofmeister blasted the March 25 surprise settlement deal, ramrodded through by a vote of four of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s six appointees on the state board, as a circumvention of the will of the people of Oklahoma and the state Legislature, adding: “I fear this action knowingly violated Oklahoma statute and the Oklahoma Constitution.”
An Oklahoma County District Court judge ruled in the fall of 2017 that attorneys for the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts would be allowed to intervene in the statewide charter school association’s legal battle against the state for access to more public funding.
The two inner-city school districts willingly sponsor most of the state’s charter school districts, but the legal battle puts them in direct competition with charter schools for existing dollars.
The proposed settlement would also reallocate funding for statewide virtual charter school students based on the school district boundaries in which they reside.
The president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association slammed the Oklahoma City school district in a Thursday press statement, saying it has "benefitted from a flawed system" of school funding for more than two decades.
“The settlement approved by the state board ensures funding will be received by the school district that is actually educating the student. It’s the only fair and equitable way to fund public schools," said Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Public Schools, which serves 3,500 students in its system of Oklahoma City charter schools. "Our state’s public charter students and families deserve the same educational opportunities as their peers in traditional schools."
Any school that would be affected by the changes could go to court to challenge the legality of the state board’s actions, but because the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts are parties in the lawsuit, they could be entitled to be heard in the existing court case.
On Monday, Tulsa Public Schools demanded that the state Board of Education rescind its March 25 vote, and Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist said the district is considering “any and all available legal options” and communicating with other school districts across the state about possible next steps.
Asked for an update on Wednesday evening, a Tulsa Public Schools spokeswoman told the Tulsa World: “We are in full support of Oklahoma City Public Schools’ cross claims. We are in the process of preparing our own response to the Oklahoma State Board of Education’s action and expect to move forward in the next few days.”
Related video: Oklahoma State Board of Education votes to equalize funding to settle charter lawsuit