Emma Keith: Column: NPS Board's behavior at hearing should prompt serious reflection

·4 min read

Jun. 23—There are plenty of entry points I could use to talk about the Cavett hearing Friday, but I want to focus on the behavior three board members displayed throughout the 14-hour day. The only board members who did not deliver personal or defensive attacks against witnesses were Alex Ruggiers and Cindy Nashert, who both stayed cool and asked reasonable questions.

Dirk O'Hara used some of his time on the dais to re-litigate a political campaign in which he and a witness ran against each other last year, insinuating failings on the part of the witness because she hadn't connected with him on some campaign issues in 2021. The campaign had no relevance to the case at hand Friday, or even to the witness' trustworthiness as a person.

Chad Vice seemed to take great satisfaction in pressing the same witness about her community advocacy and how she chooses to go about it. He made snide remarks that implied the witness was not serious about her work. The conversation had nothing to do with the hearing; it seemed more a moment for Vice to get some personal grievances off his chest.

Linda Sexton grilled Mr. Cavett about his perception (which he is far from alone in) that the district has not communicated sufficiently with parents and teachers about serious issues in the past. But she seemed to take more issue with the fact that Mr. Cavett might at times misperceive the board or administration's motives than with the case at hand, or than the idea that a portion of her community mistrusts her district administration.

O'Hara, Sexton and Vice should take a moment to reflect on why they're on the dais in the first place. Is it to discern and promote truth? Is it to defend the district and themselves when they feel personally hurt? Is it to get in pithy strikes at a witness in a serious hearing?

These five board members find themselves in a relatively powerful position; they have the authority to determine a person's employment and place a very, very serious strike on their record by terminating a staffer. My criticism of these board members is not based solely on the final votes they cast Friday — Ruggiers voted against firing Cavett and Nashert voted for, but my qualms are not with either of them right now.

Perhaps the board's biggest mistake was not its pettiness Friday, but what that pettiness reflects: the board's unwillingness to believe that anyone would take action out of pure, earned distrust of the district, and how they refused to believe that some people see advocacy work and outreach as necessary because NPS does not properly communicate with parents and teachers.

This shows me that the district is perhaps not listening to or absorbing what its community says.

And actually, the board's scoffing at the concept that NPS would ever bury or cover up a major issue without proper communication was immediately proven foolish by both sides in the hearing Friday, when it was revealed that Norman High administration painted over racist, sexist and threatening graffiti before administrators took pictures of all of it and before police saw it (a literal cover up). The district also said there was no immediate threat before Norman police could confirm their statement.

It's true that sometimes people may distrust or dislike administration for unfounded reasons, or reasons borne out of miscommunication or an inability to see the full picture. It's true that the board and administrators get the full picture that they can't always share — legally or ethically — with the public. I understand it's a frustrating position to be in when you believe your behavior is justified, but can't fully explain your choices to those questioning you.

I and other community members are not board members, but we also didn't run a political campaign to be one. Those five members are on the dais purely by choice, and hypothetically, as an act of service.

Their frustrations with the community are no excuse for a lack of humility and ability to see your own district's failings. Every district will have them, especially one with 14,000 students and 2,000 staff.

The frustrations are also no excuse to use part of a 14-hour proceeding to mock a witness you personally disagree with, showing contempt for a parent in your school district and the many people who trust her. I'm not even taking sides with the issue at hand here; I'm just noting that a board that can't even treat witnesses and parents respectfully and without sneering mockery should take a moment to check itself.

Ms. Nashert, I hope you were correct in your assertion Friday night, just before the board delivered its decision to fire Mr. Cavett, that the district takes these issues seriously. Your colleagues have not convinced us.

Emma Keith is the editor of The Transcript, where she covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.