The Tulsa school board’s longest-serving member hasn’t faced a challenger in 20 years.
This year, Ruth Ann Fate has two.
The 83-year-old District 6 representative who was first elected in 1996, hopes to serve a seventh term to continue overseeing successful programs she helped support. Her opponents, Jerry Griffin and Stephen Remington, want to bring accountability and fresh perspectives to the board.
Schools in District 6 include Hale, Jones, Bell, Hoover, Zarrow International and Memorial Junior High.
A retired preschool teacher, Fate said her background in education inspired her to first run for the seat 24 years ago. Although she never imagined staying on the board this long, the ability to have an effect on students kept her going.
“I think it was just continuing to see good results from some of the things that we have done over the years and being able to interact with the kids and seeing what a difference their education was making in life,” Fate said. “I’ve built some really good relationships with people in education, both local and statewide, that have helped me think I make a difference.”
Some of the programs in her district she’s most proud of emerged in the past few years, such as the implementation of Tulsa Beyond at Hale High School. There’s also Hoover Elementary’s Leader in Me program, which empowers students with leadership and life skills.
The success of these programs and others compelled Fate to run for another four-year term.
“I’m hopeful that I will go another time,” she said. “I think the difference is I have seen within the last two or three years some major programs that we have started in the schools that have really made a difference in some of the kids’ lives. All we hear and see is the bad things, but I work closely with the principals that I know there’s a lot of good things going on in the different school areas.”
Fate’s seat has been uncontested since her first re-election in 2000. She said she believes a change in the climate of society led to her opposition.
When asked to clarify, Fate said: “As far as my feelings, things are different in our society as far as how people deal with things and how they handle things. It’s like, ‘OK, let’s go oppose something’ or ‘let’s go stake out’ or do something like that rather than if you see a concern, saying, ‘OK, what can we do about this?’ ”
Stephen Remington, 42, said Fate’s historical lack of opposition is part of what led him to declare his candidacy. Although he said nobody can question the incumbent’s volunteering record, he believes no elected official should run unopposed.
Remington also criticized what he considers to be a premature approval of Superintendent Deborah Gist’s budget-reduction recommendation, which involves closing four elementary schools, including Jones Elementary in District 6. The recommendation also would reduce district office services and slightly increase elementary class sizes.
Fate told the Tulsa World last month that she stood by the intended proposal and believed it to be the best way to correct the approximately $20 million budget deficit without putting too much strain on students. District officials largely blame the shortfall on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts.
Remington, who said he is in between jobs but previously worked at a Dish Network call center, faulted current board members for — in most cases — approving high-impact action items without scrutiny. He said he has asked district leaders multiple times how they can continue to ask legislators to allocate more money when they make decisions that aren’t showing stability.
The father of five adopted kids who either attend or graduated from Tulsa Public Schools also criticized TPS for turning to out-of-state consultant companies for help instead of relying on its “talented staff” to come up with solutions. Remington said his primary goals are to increase transparency and accountability for the administration.
“It is very concerning that our district continues to lose students at record rates when the state has shown growth in enrollment, but Ruth Ann Fate continues to show her support of the current leadership at TPS,” he said. “... It is clear that the time is now to get a new school board member that is ready to listen and find solutions without looking at consultants to fix the issues.”
Jerry Griffin, 75, has a doctorate in education and teaches online business and criminal justices classes at the University of Oklahoma and the for-profit University of Phoenix. He said he thought about running for the school board during the previous two elections but decided it wasn’t the right time.
Griffin said he’s running this time because he has the know-how and the answers to help TPS through its current budget crisis. He said he came to believe many school board members are being misled about the issues after attending the district’s community meetings addressing the shortfall.
“Going to these meetings, you see the administration making presentations to the school board and to the public that — many of them are just totally unorganized and have data mistakes,” Griffin said. “The board doesn’t understand their language. I think I have the background to say, ‘You said this. Now tell me why this means that.’ In other words, I can talk to them on their level.”
One of his ideas is for TPS to develop a competitive online school that would bring back students who left for Epic Charter Schools and other virtual options. He also wants to create a children’s savings account program that would provide every kindergarten student $50 toward a college savings fund.
Griffin said the objective is to develop a brand designating TPS as a first-rate and first-choice district for families.
“That’s the bottom line — how can we motivate students and parents to want to be part of the system? Build the brand,” he said. “Right now, everybody has a brand. It’s just not a brand anybody wants.”
The three District 6 candidates will meet in a general election on Feb. 11. If none receives more than 50% of the vote, the leading two candidates will meet in a runoff election on April 7.