Former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys likes to quote a saying he gleaned from another metro mover and shaker: “Never climb a ladder leaning toward you; never kiss a girl leaning away from you; and never run for school board.”
It is, of course, advice the one-time Putnam City school board member and now Oklahoma City Public Schools board chairman-elect has not followed ” at least not the last part. But maybe that’s not too surprising, when motivation for taking on the OKCPS job fills the walls of his downtown office.
Gesturing toward ranks of framed photographs and articles celebrating 2001’s passage of MAPS for Kids, heralding creation of a “learning city,” Humphreys said his mind hasn’t changed in seven years. Quality public education for all children in Oklahoma City remains a holy grail ” key to not just the future of school kids, but the health of the city itself.
“The district has made progress in recent years, but honestly, it has not come close to delivering on the promise of MAPS for Kids,” he said. “I am nowhere near satisfied that we’re where we ought to be. And I believe that we can make a significant difference.”
Humphreys’ determination to go against even humorous wisdom ” on a path that leads, career-wise, he jokes, to “extinction” ” seems to fit: He’ll chart his own course. This is the man who, as a high school student, made a perfect score on the math portion of the PSAT, yet was “not a particularly good student,” to the chagrin of his teacher. When it comes to the intricacies of board politics, “I’m just going to be who I am and say what I think,” he said.
JOINING THE BOARD
As for joining the OKCPS school board? “It’s one of those things you think about in the middle of the night,” Humphreys said. “My thought process was: ‘Well, you know what? Our city is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in MAPS for Kids and I got it willing to do that; my fingerprints are all over it, and we can’t afford for it to fail. “¦ I’ll do it.'”
After former Superintendent John Q. Porter and chairman Cliff Hudson’s joint resignation in January, a bill passed enabling the board to choose its own chair to finish Hudson’s four-year term. State Rep. Mike Shelton decried the measure for allowing board members, not the public, to select the chair for the remaining term, on the grounds the position has not been effective and was predetermined.
But with his MAPS for Kids and previous board experience, Humphreys stood out as the “natural choice,” according to interim board chairman Al Basey.
“His leadership style; his background in education “¦ he’s a leader,” Basey said. “And that’s what you look for when you look for a chairman ” you look for a leader, somebody (who’s) willing to go through what they’ve got to go through and spend their time and donate their time.”
Wilfredo Rivera cast the only nay vote, over his differences with Humphreys on charter schools. Rivera believes charters drain students and dollars from regular public schools, and require children to “be lucky” to get a good education.
“You’re skimming the cream off the top,” he said. “The reality of the situation is we have to do a better education of the working class. The public schools are the backbone of democracy, but when you start creating charter schools, you don’t have a level playing field.”
According to Humphreys, Hudson had recommended he find someone new to take on the chairmanship a year ago. Hudson said he went to the former mayor because of their joint work on MAPS for Kids, and Humphreys’ leadership skills and investment in the initiative.
“He knows it is critical to the future of the community for us to have a viable public school system,” Hudson said. “Most importantly, he cares about public education, in general, and the Oklahoma City Public Schools, in particular.”
Humphreys’ goals entail making good on the promises of MAPS for Kids and stopping “the merry-go-round” of superintendents, with a solid one in place, backed by a “unified board.”
“You get down to the question of ‘What are doing here? What’s our purpose?'” he said. “I believe our purpose is to provide a first-rate education option for every child (who) lives in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district.”
For Humphreys, a businessman who runs his real-estate company from the second floor of the old Oklahoman and Times building, that means first addressing “Who’s our customer?”
“Right now, (the district’s) customer is the person that’s there. I’m wondering about the customer that’s not buying the product. What about the family that has opted out or moved out?” he said. “If they moved out, our failures have encouraged them on that path. That means something’s gotta change.”
Humphreys, who graduated from Northwest Classen High School 40 years ago this year, ought to know: He and his wife did it. They raised their children in Putnam City when that part of the metro was booming, in the way Edmond and Norman are now.
“We were just like a lot of the families ” at the time, people were buying in Putnam City,” he said. “I’d like to reverse that trend.”
To do that, the chairman-elect maintains implementing stability from the board and getting proper leadership are key. He is for anything that he thinks might work, charter schools included, or taking a business approach to education via talk of
customers and market share.
“I think the ingredients for success are the same no matter where you are,” Humphreys said. “Quality principals setting the tone for (each) building and teaching staff. Parents’ (involvement). If there’s any message from me, it’s that the situation now is not acceptable.”
MAPS FOR KIDS
Seven years ago, Humphreys culled consensus from voters to approve MAPS for Kids, pumping $470 million into visible education-related improvements. Today, with different ideas about how to match outward accomplishments within classrooms, and any residue from the Porter-Hudson controversy, that may prove a challenge, according to Pam Calvert, a regular OKCPS board meeting attendee and president of the Oklahoma City PTA Council, who has a child attending John Adams Elementary School.
“I think that he will do the best that he can,” she said. “I would not want to step into that position right now. “¦ But I think he’s up for it; I think he can handle it.”
The most important ingredient for effectively carrying out the district’s business and achieving its goals, according to Hudson, who held the post for seven years, is “open, direct and frequent communications” between the chairman and superintendent.
“Like in every relationship, trust is everything,” he said.
As for Humphreys, as chairman-elect, he still sees consensus-building as his key role.
“I think the chair is the sheepdog of the board,” he said. “You’re not the dictator. It’s your job to try to get five votes together for some direction. “¦ There’s a line “¦ that I think the board needs to stay on one side of and let the superintendent be on the other side of. We need to empower the superintendent to do their job.”
Humphreys will get his test in August, when he becomes a full-fledged, voting member of the board. Consensus doesn’t have to mean blanket agreement between each other, he admitted, adding there’s a chance he might ruffle a few feathers before next February’s election, for which he intends to run.
“Ideally, in my position, you would kind of back down and be quiet and not rub folks till then,” he said. “(But) if people think that I’m going to come in there and say, ‘Everything’s wonderful, let’s all sing ‘Kumbaya’ and drink hot cocoa and make s’mores,’ that’s not what I’m doing. That’s not why I’m there. I’m there because this city is committed to having a first-class urban school district and (I want to) make good on that promise. “¦ We’re not there yet.” “Emily Jerman