Although it is not on the published agenda, Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education will hear from people Monday night about its relationship with the district’s LGBTQ community.
Eight people have signed up to speak about LGBTQ inclusion and representation concerns during the citizens’ comment portion of Monday night’s meeting, according to the district.
The citizens’ comment portion is restricted to remarks about items not on the agenda. Under board policy, its sign-up window closed seven days prior to the meeting. However, both the Tulsa County Republican Party and the Tulsa County Democratic Party have issued public calls to action to their members, encouraging them to show up to the Education Service Center on Monday for the 6:30 p.m. meeting.
Laura Bellis is among the people who have signed up to speak. A candidate for the District 4 Tulsa City Council seat, Bellis previously taught at Nathan Hale Junior High School and sponsored the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance while a member of the faculty.
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Bellis said she previously reached out via email with concerns about the district’s LGBTQ inclusion efforts but wants the conversation to be out in the public since it involves students, staff and families.
With the district’s LGBTQ population not just limited to a single site or corner of TPS, she said she wants the entire school board to be in a better position to understand and represent those families and staff when making decisions.
“I keep thinking about the students I worked with,” she said. “I want the people who vote on matters that directly impacts them to embrace those students for who they are. I don’t think anyone’s hateful on purpose. This is just an opportunity to learn more, and if I can help make that happen, then great.”
Of the eight commenters, seven did not mention any individual board members in their request to speak.
The eighth specifically mentioned concerns about social media posts made by District 4 representative E’Lena Ashley. Ashley shared a meme in May claiming that American third graders were academically behind their counterparts in China and India because they were spending more time learning about same-sex relationships than about math or science.
She also shared a post in June implying that women’s sports are under attack from transgender athletes.
State Secretary of Education and Republican candidate for state superintendent Ryan Walters issued a letter Friday afternoon claiming that Ashley alone was targeted; saying entertaining the discussion was unacceptable; and asking the TPS board to “stand up to the left wing mob” and to “stop allowing school board meetings to be dominated by socialist issues.”
Although it was addressed to members of the Tulsa school board, both a district spokeswoman and board President Stacey Woolley confirmed that the district did not receive Walters’ letter prior to its release to the press via email and to the public by social media.
In a joint statement released late Friday afternoon, Woolley and board Vice President John Croisant reiterated that despite Walters’ letter, Monday night’s meeting will be held in accordance with published board policies, including allowing comments from the individuals who signed up by the stated deadline.
“We hope that in the future, Mr. Walters will genuinely engage directly with us in a collaborative effort to address concerns and problem-solve together for the betterment of Tulsa Public Schools’ students and all students and teachers throughout the state of Oklahoma,” the statement says.
This is the second time in less than six months that the district’s efforts to provide an inclusive teaching and learning environment have been publicly challenged.
At a special meeting in March, multiple attendees laid out five demands for the district and the school board to better support its Spanish-speaking students, staff and families, including better translation services at public meetings, mandatory immigrant support training for school board members, and diversity, equity and inclusion training for school board members and district leaders.
State law does require new school board members to complete at least 12 hours of professional development training within 15 months of taking office. However, beyond stipulating a minimum of one hour each for courses related to school finance, ethics and the state’s Open Meeting and Open Records acts, the law does not list specific topics under those umbrella categories that must be covered.
Tulsa World Opinion: People will get involved if they see people who look like them involved