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Public access remains limited at Oklahoma State Board of Education meetings

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Public access remains limited at Oklahoma State Board of Education meetings

Sep 29, 2023 | 6:28 am ET
By Mindy Ragan Wood
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Public access remains limited at Oklahoma State Board of Education meetings
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Dozens of people, who hope to attend the State Board of Education meeting, wait outside Thursday. The crowd exceeded meeting room capacity. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Dozens of Oklahomans found themselves barred from Thursday’s State Board of Education’s meeting room after the state superintendent decided not to move the meeting to a larger venue.

Though the crowd was smaller than at previous meetings, a line of at least 30 people was still waiting to get in after the meeting started. Some left visibly frustrated.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said last month that he was looking for a larger space to accommodate the crowds that for months have been gathering outside the meeting. He said he hadn’t finalized an agreement and noted that paying to rent space was a concern along with finding one large enough to accommodate the public.

His spokesperson Dan Isett said in an email this week, “the process hasn’t been completed yet.”

Like in months past, Thursday’s line formed before dawn. Several people sat in lawn chairs outside the front door, munching on breakfast and waiting for the building to open.

Many attendees said they were disappointed that Walters hadn’t yet moved the meetings to a larger space.

“If he (Walters) wanted everyone to be able to speak, he would move it,” said Tommi Aldridge, 45, of Oklahoma City.

She said she’s seen church buses drop people off at the meetings. Forcing Oklahomans to line up hours early for one of the limited seats in the boardroom is keeping “regular people out,” Aldridge said.

According to the state fire marshal’s guidance, the meeting room and a nearby hallway can safely accommodate only 49 people. Walters added an additional 25-person overflow area and the meeting is shown by projector in the lobby.

An open meetings advocate previously said the agency is technically complying with Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act because state law does not require government bodies to have enough space for everyone who wants to attend. However, ensuring there’s enough space for everyone honors the spirit of the law.

“In an ideal world, we would have a space where all our citizens have a right to be heard,” said Tim Atkins, 41, of Warr Acres.

Jill Larsen, 45, of Edmond held a sign in support of Walters. She said more capacity “would be great because everyone could show up and get in on time.”

Walters’ supporter Ashley Hall, 65, of Edmond, said meeting attendance is “hit or miss.”

She noted that until recently, the meetings had been sparsely attended.

“Do they need to make major changes because of the what-ifs? That I don’t know,” Hall said.