Does New Board Member Have a Conflict of Interest?

A group of TPS parents and District constituents have lodged a formal grievance against seating newly elected Tulsa Board of Education member Judith Barba, who was elected last week to represent District 2. Barba’s official seating will be at 4 p.m. today at a special meeting of the Board. Members of the public may access the meeting via zoom, but they cannot make comments.

The parents’ grievance states that Ms. Barba’s employment with Growing Together Tulsa presents a direct conflict of interest to Tulsa Public Schools Board Policy 1102.

The parents’ complaint states:

  •  Tulsa School Board Policy 1102 includes a subsection entitled Contracts with Board Members or Business in Which Board Members Have an Interest and explicitly prohibits the District from entering into a contract “with a Board member or any company, individual, business concern, or other entity in which any Board member is directly or indirectly interested, except as otherwise provided by Oklahoma law.” Tulsa Public Schools Board Policy 1102, Contracts with Board Members or Business in Which Board Members Have an Interest
  •  On June 18, 2020 the Board approved an agreement for contracted services provided by Growing Together to the District in the amount of $390,000 to provide services for students and teachers. Regular Meeting, June 18, 2020, Item E.23
  •  Ms. Barba herself is employed by Growing Together, an entity whose work is so closely bound up with that of the School District’s that employees of Growing Together are assigned positions as “Site Coordinators” inside of four schools belonging to the sub-district Ms. Barba would represent. Due to the nature of the services provided, Ms. Barba functions as a de facto employee of the District. Due to the extant contract with Growing Together, Ms. Barba’s loyalty to the District could be divided.

I do not know Ms. Barba, but I do feel that Board members should be free of any hint of conflict of interest. Ms. Barba was also funded by not only individuals who work for Growing Together, but also individuals connected to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, the Lobeck Taylor Foundation and Impact Tulsa, according to Ms. Barba’s Monetary Contributions report. Those entities all have interest in the implementation and success of Growing Together Tulsa. So, will Ms. Barba recuse herself on votes connected to programs and interests of Growing Together? And, if she does, how will she be able to honestly represent her constituents?

Having a Latinx Board member is long overdue. That representation has been lacking, but that Board member should be free to vote without the cloud of a conflict of interest hanging over her.

I would also like to say that Ms. Barba’s opponents were also “historic,” as I’ve heard Ms. Barba’s election called. Theresa Hinman is Native American. She started a citizen’s group to advocate for Native students. She has worked tirelessly, not only in Tulsa, but statewide and beyond to speak for the interests and inclusiveness of Native students.

Marsha Campbell, Ms. Barba’s other opponent, is Black. She is a former McLain High School teacher. She could hit the ground running in terms of knowing her district as well as public school policy. At a time when schools are closing and neighborhoods are losing the community connections that used to happen, Ms. Campbell could bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and understanding to a Board position.

Before the election, the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association had a forum featuring all the candidates for this election, and for the District 3 election on April 3. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hinman exhibited their deep, long-time ties to the district. They had thoughtful and complex answers to complex questions that schools are dealing with today, from racial inequities to the District’s problems with IEPs. Ms. Barba’s answers were just not as complete, and that had nothing to do with the language barrier since she had a translator. I have no doubt she would be a valuable liaison with Latinx students and their families, but isn’t she already doing that in her position with Growing Together?

The election of any one of these three women would be historic. Unfortunately, the least qualified and the most compromised was elected.

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