Hofmeister helps kill Stitt-backed Oklahoma dropout prevention program

A proposal to fund a $433,000 dropout prevention program that was a priority for Gov. Kevin Stitt failed in a state board vote on Thursday, as the row escalated between the governor’s cabinet and Oklahoma’s top education official.

The State Board of Career and Technology Education has not agreed to add the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program to its annual budget. The council omitted the initiative when it approved its annual budget last month.

Public Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was one of two dissenting votes that sank the measure. Hofmeister, a Democrat challenging Stitt for governor, said JAG would help too few students at too high a price.

“All kids deserve resources, not just a handful in six schools,” she said at the CareerTech board meeting.

One of her duties as State Superintendent is to chair the CareerTech Board of Directors.

Tension between Hofmeister and Stitt grew beyond the board’s vote on Thursday when she accused the governor’s education secretary, Ryan Walters, of withholding $12 million from going to early childhood services . Walters told The Oklahoman he was ready to approve the spending, but Hofmeister is engaging in “political theater.”

Stitt sits on the national board of directors for the nonprofit JAG. The governor and state legislature appointed Oklahoma CareerTech to take over the program in July 2021 after another state agency oversaw its pilot year in 2020, said Oklahoma communications director Russell Ray. CareerTech.

Stitt introduced the program to Oklahoma two years ago, praising JAG for “a remarkable record of success in helping the most vulnerable young people succeed in school, work and college.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Kate Vesper, said Hofmeister was “more interested in playing politics” than making sure all Oklahoma students get a quality education.

“It is disappointing that the state superintendent has been pressured to halt a program that has successfully provided at-risk youth with the resources they need to stay in school,” Vesper said in a statement.

CareerTech’s acting director, Dr. Lee Denney, said the agency was “thrilled” to run the program. The former state representative encouraged the council to approve it.

“It wasn’t something we imagined. It was a directive that was given to us,” Denney said at the meeting. “You have to start somewhere saving children.”

Funding the program for a second year under CareerTech failed to obtain the minimum number of board votes needed to pass.

Only five CareerTech board members attended their meeting on Thursday. The council has nine seats, but one is now vacant. Three council members voted to fund the program, short of the required majority of five votes.

Hofmeister and board member Shaelynn Haning voted against the measure. Peter Dillingham, Michael Brown and Edward Hilliary Jr. voted in favour.

Board members Brian Bobek, Estela Hernandez and Randy Gilbert did not attend the meeting.

JAG has offered to bring a specialist to six Oklahoma schools this year to work with students at risk of dropping out. Each specialist would have a workload of no more than 60 students, capping the program at 360 students statewide.

In return, JAG demanded $388,400 from the state. He received a $45,000 donation from Weyerhaeuser Timberlands to establish the program in Broken Bow Public Schools.

The donation will be refunded without JAG board approval, Denney said.

The six school districts that would have received a specialist were Broken Arrow, Broken Bow, Durant, Glenpool, Watts and Wewoka.

Public Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister on Thursday rejected a $433,000 dropout prevention program that she said was too expensive to serve just a few hundred students.

About 20% of Oklahoma high school students don’t graduate in four years and 2.8% have dropped out, according to the state’s most recent data.

Hofmeister called it a “crisis” in the state, but said JAG would not do enough to address it. Other CareerTech board members said the program could be useful even with a few hundred participants.

“The reason I’m for it is to try to reach more (students),” Hilliary said. “I think these students are worth investing money to see if we can make a difference.”

The fact that the JAG selected the six districts without a bidding process is a “red flag”, Hofmeister said. She also took issue with CareerTech hiring teachers for the program before the board had officially approved the initiative.

She said JAG would duplicate efforts already underway at all Oklahoma public high schools. Each ninth grade student is required to develop an individual academic career plan to establish goals for post-secondary life and chart the steps to achieve them.

Those academic plans include support for students who are at risk of not completing high school, Hofmeister said. She called JAG “duplicative” and “very expensive” in comparison.

Midwest City High School was one of the first in the state to pilot JAG in 2020. Midwest City-Del City Superintendent Rick Cobb said the school district wanted to keep the program but lost it after a year when the JAG was assigned to another state agency.

Students were excited about the program when it existed in Midwest City, Cobb said. With a school-based JAG specialist, students learned how to search for jobs, practiced soft skills for the workplace, and explored career options.

“I would like to know the state’s vision for sustaining it beyond a year or two before recommending anyone else step in,” Cobb said. “I think when JAG is operating at its optimum level, it’s a holistic career planning program for students who (students) can drive.”

Early childhood funds at center of dispute

Shortly after the CareerTech vote, Hofmeister revealed in a press release another dispute between his office and that of the governor.

The state superintendent blamed Stitt’s education secretary for obstructing $12 million in public funds that the Oklahoma legislature designated for early childhood centers.

“His playfulness is intimidating to infants and children, but that’s no surprise,” Hofmeister said in the written statement. “It’s a tendency of Governor Stitt’s administration when they don’t get their way or have to distract themselves from their own financial scandals.”

As Secretary of Education, Walters must approve all non-emergency expenses over $25,000 for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Hofmeister said Walters refused to approve a contract between the state and the Tulsa County Community Action Project because he believed Tulsa Public Schools were involved.

Public Schools Superintendent candidate Ryan Walters speaks during an election watch party on June 28, 2022, inside the First National Center in Oklahoma City.

CAP Tulsa, a nonprofit organization, partners and administers the $12 million Oklahoma Early Childhood Program which supports early learning centers for poor children ages 3 and under. The Tulsa School District is not a party to the contract, Hofmeister said.

Oklahoman obtained emails between Walters and the Department of Education showing he had asked the agency to share future financial reports that would detail the Tulsa District’s involvement. The governor called for a state audit of Tulsa schools earlier this month, questioning the district’s use of state and federal funds.

Walters, a Republican nominee to succeed Hofmeister, said the $12 million program is one of the biggest expenses he’s been asked to sign. He said he was ready to approve the contract as long as the Ministry of Education agreed to send him regular financial reports.

“Instead of responding to my email, Joy Hofmeister decided to engage in political theater by issuing a press release,” Walters said. “Moving forward, I want to be able to see the reports to make sure that money is going where it’s intended.”

Journalist Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education statewide in Oklahoma. Do you have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.

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