A pair of school board seats is up for grabs in an election scheduled for next week. The Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education is comprised of seven members plus the board chairperson.
The two district positions to be determined in the Feb. 9 election are District 5 and District 7. The election is only open to registered voters within the two districts.
District 5 covers the northeast section of Oklahoma City and Spencer. It represents 15 schools.
District 5 has been represented by Thelma Parks since 1988. This is the first time since being elected that she has faced an opponent for the seat. In next week’s election, one person is running against her. Parks, 86, graduated from Langston University and later from the University of Oklahoma. She has a long history with Oklahoma City Public Schools, first as an elementary and later high school English teacher.
Parks became a counselor at U.S. Grant, where she was the first black counselor at the school. She stayed at U.S. Grant for 18 years. Parks was elected to the school board in 1988, the year she planned on retiring, and said she ran because fellow teachers and administrators said there was a need for representation on the board.
“I have worked collaboratively as a board member,” she said. “When I came on, I wanted to ask questions. If I’m representing a group of people, I want to hear from them. And so collaboratively, we worked together.”
During her tenure on the board, she has held positions as both the president and vice president.
“I am a worker,” Parks said. “I am a person who gets very involved in what I’m doing.”
Parks said she wants to stay on the board to continue improving city schools and positively influencing students.
“I know the Oklahoma City Public Schools system, and I want it to be better than what it is right now,” she said. “I want to continue doing what we are trying to do, to raise the bar and raise the graduation rate.”
Ruth Veales, of Midwest City, is running against Parks. She is a law enforcement administrative assistant for the Spencer Police Department. This is her first time running for a public office ” a theme in all of the challengers in the upcoming election.
“I am committed to the cause,” she said, saying that there needs to be some positive changes in the district to “assure that all children have a chance to receive a quality education.”
Veales, 52, graduated from Crooked Oak High School. She said she made the decision to run after hearing concerns from school personnel, parents, students and her own interaction with school administrators. In District 5, Veales said she sees a need to address safety concerns, as well as strengthening parental involvement.
If she’s elected to the position, Veales said she would work to “bring all stakeholders from all schools in my district together to identify concerns they have in their schools.”
District 7 covers portions of the south side of Oklahoma City. It represents 10 elementary, middle and high schools. District 7 has been represented by Wilfredo Santos-Rivera since 2006. He faces two opponents. Ron Millican, 72, graduated from Southeast High School and later from East Central State College (now East Central University). He also has a master’s degree from the University of Central Oklahoma.
For 33 years, Millican worked in Midwest City Public Schools as a teacher, counselor, administrator and assistant superintendent. He retired in 1994 and has since served as an adjunct professor at UCO in the education department.
“I think we need to improve instruction on all levels and work for strong leadership in all the schools, from both a faculty standpoint and an administrative standpoint,” he said. “I think we should strive very hard to make sure that every child has an opportunity to succeed.”
He cited his own education in Oklahoma City Public Schools, saying it prompted him to go to college and become a teacher. “That’s how important I think it is.”
Millican also said he thinks issues regarding at-risk schools and parental involvement need to be addressed and that his background in education gives him a unique perspective that he thinks would be useful on the board.
Larry Collins, 44, is also challenging Santos-Rivera. He graduated from Southeast High School, where he took advantage of vocational training, and is now an armored truck driver. Collins decided to run because his daughter is starting school, and he wants to improve facilities and educational opportunities for her and other students.
“I’ve got a little girl that is entering Hayes Elementary next year, and I’m concerned about her education,” he said. “I’ve looked at some of the things that have gone on with our board over the last several years and the conditions of our schools, and it’s just not acceptable to me.”
Collins mentioned several schools in his district that need facility improvements, saying the south side of the city is sometimes ignored by the board.
“I want to guard the tax dollars and make sure they’re evenly distributed in District 7. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the south side of Oklahoma City doesn’t get its fair share,” he said.
Collins also said he wants to see improved vocational training, an option for students that he said has been lost over the last few years.
“I’m from a vocational background,” he said. “We need every student to have the opportunity for vocational training. I don’t want to get away from academics, but the reality is that most of our kids are going into some type of vocational work.”
Although Collins’ name will still appear on the ballot, he may not be able to be seated should he win, said Kathleen Kennedy, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Public Schools. According to state law, candidates must live within their district and be registered to vote for six months before being eligible. Collins registered to vote in November 2009, records show.
Although Collins reportedly claims he has lived in the district for more than six months and was purged from the voting system without his knowledge, Kennedy said the district would refer to Oklahoma State School Board Association attorneys.
A similar situation sidelined Santos-Rivera’s bid for District 7 in 2001. He ran uncontested in 2006. Santos-Rivera, 64, is the incumbent for District 7. Originally from Puerto Rico, Santos-Rivera went to the University of Puerto Rico and also has a master’s degree in school administration. He has worked as a teacher in both public and private schools.
Santos-Rivera moved to Oklahoma City more than 20 years ago and said he has worked ever since to be an advocate for education, striving to better connect the school system with the community.
“I am always accessible,” he said. “People call me, and I ask them when they’re available “¦ I meet with them, listen to them and I get to work immediately.”
Santos-Rivera said that when others may say they don’t have the time, he is always willing to listen to the community and parents and work for them. He is running again to increase parental and community involvement and continue raising the literacy rate in the schools, which is something he said starts with parents.
“Parents are the first teachers,” he said, but he also wants to see city schools graduate more students who go on to, and finish, college. “We need to give them what they need to succeed.” “Jenny Coon Peterson