Sharply focused

Oklahoma City’s new mayor wants to focus on establishing an education conversation.

Sharply focused
Laura Eastes
Inside the mayor’s conference room at Oklahoma City Hall, Mayor David Holt directed city staff to hang photos of the city’s children on the walls. Holt said he wants to remind leaders that they will make decisions that impact the next generation.

On the second floor of Oklahoma City Hall, just inside the mayor’s conference room connected to both the mayor’s office and the council chambers, framed portraits of the city’s past mayors have always hung on the wall. Not so anymore.

On his first day as the City of Oklahoma City’s 36th mayor, David Holt left the conference door wide open, inviting anyone in the public building to take a peek. Photographs of Oklahoma City’s children are now hanging where the portraits of mayors once hung.

“We all know that the decisions that we’re making in this room and in this building and in many important rooms in this downtown are for George, Maggie and for all the kids of Oklahoma City,” Holt said within minutes after he took his oath of office on the morning of April 10. Holt and his wife Rachel have two children, George and Margaret (Maggie).

Much of the new mayor’s message on day one, but also on the campaign trail, centered on building a city for the future, including future generations. As Holt sees it, the 20 photos of local children will serve as motivation for leaders when discussing city business.

“We’ve come so far so fast that it’s easy to think we are finished,” Holt said when speaking to reporters following his first council meeting. “But we know that we are not. We still have to keep investing in our city. We have to continue to build a city for our kids and our grandkids.”

Education challenges

A new era in Oklahoma City began April 10 when the gavel was passed to Holt, who, at age 39, is the youngest current mayor of an American city with more than 500,000 residents.

While Holt’s top priority is to continue the city’s positive momentum and work toward that momentum spreading further past downtown and the urban core, Holt also has his eyes on local education. When he was asked about where he will place his energy in the first few weeks and months in office, his answer was launching a conversation about supporting public education, including Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“State funding issues are on everybody’s mind, but before the last few weeks, we were certainly cognizant of our local concerns,” Holt said. “We need to have a very inclusive conversation … that involves the city, the school district, business leaders, parents and anybody else who is interested. We really need to come up with a vision. This is the first step.”

Like many cities across the county, Oklahoma City faces some tough challenges when it comes to education. Districts are doing more with less, in large part because of the fewer classroom dollars flowing from the state to local coffers. In recent years, certified teachers have left the classroom, citing low pay, lack of support and an overload of assessments and accountability as the top reasons.

In Oklahoma City’s urban schools, districts serve larger concentrations of poor students, racial minorities and English-language learners. At the same time, the city has seen exciting new growth and revitalization in its urban core. Those new opportunities in urban neighborhoods aren’t always reflected in local urban schools. Educators in less-populated areas of the city do not necessarily face some of the challenges associated with the urban school districts.

Oklahoma City has a history of developing customized policy solutions to fit the local environment, especially in the area of education. MAPS for Kids is a strong example of municipal government, local school boards and district leaders teaming to find a solution, although municipal government and school boards are separate entities.

Holt, who once worked in the mayor’s office prior to serving as a Republican state senator, is a student of history. Familiar with city leaders’ past efforts in education, he sees an opportunity to replicate the community conversation model that later led to a $700 million investment into local school districts.

“We want to engage in [education] because it is the greatest challenge facing our city,” Holt said. “Just because cities don’t run school districts, [that] doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care about it.”

Sharply focused
Laura Eastes
David Holt became the City of Oklahoma City’s 36th mayor on April 10.

Education emphasis

Holt envisions the conversation replicating the format of Project KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools), a multi-year conversation about education reform overseen by Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, now known as The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Led by philanthropist Jean Gumerson and attorney Bruce Day, a diverse group of civic, business and community leaders produced a final report, Building a Learning City, which outlined various recommendations, including capital improvements for schools. That recommendation spurred MAPS for Kids.

Applying the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) model to public-education infrastructure, MAPS for Kids led to a $700 million investment into construction, transportation and technology to benefit all Oklahoma City public school students (23 districts) by levying a 1-cent sales tax.

The Project KIDS committee also recommended reforms in areas of school finance, management, teaching accountability and alternative education.

Holt explained that the upcoming conversation would be modern and likely not focus on capital improvement projects as much as how to increase support for public education at the local level.

“I think it is time for us to rally around something,” Holt said. “I think a mayor is uniquely positioned to conduct that conversation and bring us to something that is very tangible.”

At the same time, Holt will push another community conversation, with the help of the council, around the possible fourth installment of MAPS. It’s hard to say whether a conversation on supporting education and discussion around continuing the city’s signature capital improvement program could collide. The power lies in community members voicing their desires about where they want to see the city invest.

For now, local education leaders are pleased with Holt’s heavy focus on education.

“I am thrilled that Mayor Holt has education as his priority,” Mary Mélon, president and CEO of The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said in an email to Oklahoma Gazette. “He has served on the board of directors of The Foundation for OKCPS and remains as an ex-officio member as mayor. He proved his commitment to education as a senator and went above and beyond as a foundation board member. I look forward to working with him as we move forward.”

Rebecca Kaye, acting superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) echoed Mélon’s excitement. As Kaye pointed out, Holt is a parent of two young children in the district.

“I was so moved to learn that Mayor Holt has photos of our OKCPS students, the future of our city, in his conference room to keep our leaders focused on the strength and diversity of this amazing city,” Kaye said. 

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