MUSKOGEE — Appearing at her first public forum since an Oklahoma state representative called for her resignation last week, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she would not be deterred by criminal charges against her as she fought for teacher raises and increased school funding.
Hofmeister did not mention her felony charges to the packed house at Muskogee’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, a new building that sits just northeast of the town’s shopping mall. However she did mention the charges afterward when speaking with the media.
The town hall was the last of seven as Hofmeister toured Oklahoma to get input on shaping the future of public education in Oklahoma.
“We’re going to continue to make students and the needs of their education the primary focus,” Hofmeister said when asked if the charges she faces could hinder efforts to advocate on a legislative level for teacher raises and school funding. “That is where I am committed.”
It’s been an unprecedented six weeks for Hofmeister in her role as state superintendent, a position she sought to distance from the drama of former State Superintendent Janet Barresi’s reign.
When Rep. Kevin Calvey called for Hofmeister to step down last week, he became only the most recent person to do so.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Mark Hammons said in November that while he didn’t expect Hofmeister to step down, her resignation would be a good way to end the practice of “dark money” creeping into Oklahoma politics.
“Dark money” refers to campaign donations not made to candidates themselves, but to non-profit organizations supporting them. While individual campaign donations face limits, “dark money” donations do not.
However, it is illegal for campaigns and these organizations to conspire in any way, which is what Hofmeister’s campaign is alleged to have done.
Records show that during the 14 months between Hofmeister’s entry into the race and the election, she exchanged dozens of emails and text messages with A.H. Strategies founder Fount Holland, his partner Trebor Worthen, former Secretary of State Glenn Coffee and other well-known political advisers about how to beat Barresi.
They launched a plan to funnel $100,000 in corporate contributions through two education lobbying groups to an “independent expenditure” account, also known as a dark money fund, the charges allege. The fund was used to pay for attack ads against Barresi as the election drew near.
Barresi, the wildly unpopular former state superintendent, barely managed 20 percent of the vote in 2014 primary election, falling behind Hofmeister and Brian Kelly. Hofmeister went on to defeat democrat John Cox in the general election.
Hofmeister told reporters following the town hall that she sees her office’s focus “coming to a point of success where we’re stemming the teacher shortage, and where we have competitive teacher compensation.”
“That has been a top priority of mine, but (so has) using the resources we have in a better way, and in a way that is better for students.”
‘Lots of rhetoric, but no action’
Hofmeister has been mostly silent on the issue since being charged in November with four felonies stemming from her 2014 election.
She held a press conference immediately after being charged, and then issued a statement, saying: “I will vigorously defend my integrity and reputation against any suggestion of wrongdoing and fight the allegations that have been made against me.”
Hofmeister’s charges came at perhaps the worst time possible for teachers. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater announced the charges against Hofmeister and four others less than a week before state voters were set to decide the fate of State Question 779, which proposed a statewide penny sales tax that would have given $5,000 raises to the more than 40,000 public school teachers in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education claims Oklahoma teacher compensation, a figure which includes benefits, sits at $44,921, lowest of the surrounding states and about $14,000 less than the national average. Minimum teaching starting salaries have not increased from their $31,600 figure since 2008.
The measure failed for reasons that go far beyond whatever perception issues Prater’s announcement created. Aside from being an always unpopular regressive sales tax, critics feared the across-the-board sales tax increase would harm local economies, creating such a high sales tax that it would prevent capital improvement packages from being passed.
It’s not just teachers who are underfunded. Oklahoma also ranks near the bottom in education funding, with an Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability study showing that state and federal funds flowing to schools have decreased dramatically since 2005, leaving local economies to pick up the slack.
But at least one person sees a connection between the timing of the charges against Hofmeister and SQ 779’s failure.
Mike Walcutt, a Muskogee Public Schools teacher and board member of Oklahoma Education Association, told The Frontier he thinks that SQ 779’s failure leaves two options for teacher raises: either the voters force the legislature to act, or Hofmeister does.
“Following the recent elections I don’t believe the folks in the Capitol feel any pressure whatsoever to address the problem,” Walcutt said. “I believe we’ll hear a lot of rhetoric but see no action.”
As for Hofmeister, Walcutt believes the timing of the charges was meant, at least in part, to neuter her effectiveness in advocating for funding, and to distract from SQ 779.
“(The charges) being made public was a direct attempt to hamstring her on doing her job and an attempt to shift focus from 779 at the last minute,” Walcutt told The Frontier. “I believe that the politicians who have no interest in discussing education issues now have an easy out.”
‘Why continue to teach?’
The first question Hofmeister asked the crowd, which was filled primarily with school teachers and parents of public school students, was how the lack of school funding had affected them.
Answers ranged from a lack of textbooks in the classrooms, or to a lack of options available to students who had fallen behind on attendance. One woman, who identified herself as a local teacher, said that she could no longer offer Saturday school to students who were behind on their attendance, which meant those students had little option left but to fail.
But the strongest response to Hofmeister’s query was from a man named Michael, who identified himself as a Tulsa school teacher.
“Why stay in Oklahoma?” he asked. “Why continue to teach?”
“For the kids,” Hofmeister replied. She later said that she knew teachers, many who she said told her to focus on school funding instead of raises, were working “in crisis mode.”
“And we can’t continue to be in crisis mode,” she said.
She told the attendees that while money spent on a per-student basis in Oklahoma is perilously low, public school advocates were able to keep funding nearly flat despite the $1.3 billion budget shortfall last year. While the upcoming state budget is expected to be short again, it might only be short by about $600 million, leaving the possibility open for more money to be funneled to schools.
“We asked for the funding to be restored to the levels originally in place for 2016,” she said. “We continue to grow in student enrollment, but we continue to lose teachers at the same time. So the needs are great, and our students are increasingly diverse and require greater resources to be able to meet their needs. So it is going to be an investment that can’t be ignored.”
As for raises, she echoed the sentiments of many across the state. Teachers must be paid more, she said, but the challenge will be finding the money.
The Oklahoman reported on Monday that a Shawnee republican became the first lawmaker to propose a teacher pay raise bill. Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, proposed a bill that would give $5,000 raises to the state’s public school teachers. However Sharp admitted in an interview with the newspaper that his proposal was easier said than done.
“(The) hard part is coming up with a way to pay for it,” he told The Oklahoman.