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OKC public schools superintendent evaluates first 100 days



Incoming State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Superintendent Robert Neu. (Mark Hancock)

Incoming State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Superintendent Robert Neu. (Mark Hancock)

Talk is cheap, and Robert Neu understands that.

“Talk without action equals talk,” said Neu, agreeing that a lot of talk over the past few months has to lead to a lot of action.

After wrapping up his first 100 days, Oklahoma City’s ninth superintendent in 14 years said he has confirmed the truth that the state’s largest school district struggles with poor funding, low teacher pay, a lack of strong curriculum standards and poverty.

“There is no such thing as student failure; there is system failure,” Neu said. “It’s our job to get it right.”
Neu reached his first 100 days on the job last month and said he has spent the past few months meeting with principals, teachers, parents and students in an effort to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the district. He announced an aggressive strategy for increasing student performance and addressing critical needs in the district. But while he is counting on community buy-in for his plan, he realizes the city has seen grand talk before.

“All of us [new superintendents] come in with our style and our processes and our experiences ... and it’s led our staff down a pathway of fear, uncertainty, lack of vision, the mantra that I will outlast the superintendent,” said Neu before citing a recent chamber survey that shows just 13 percent of the OKC community is satisfied with the state of the district.

Some of the challenges the district faces are an issue of numbers. The school system had a fraction of the curriculum development staff of other similarly sized districts and increased its numbers by nearly 300 percent. Not enough students were taking the SAT, Neu said, so he offered it for free to every sophomore and junior last fall.

Other problems are easy to identify, such as low teacher pay and a district security team of three people — compared to 57 in Tulsa — but will take an increase in funds to improve.

Neu outlined five critical issues he wants to address as a part of his 100 Day Transition Plan Report, which include increasing academic performance, especially among minority students; building safety; overcrowding on the district’s southside; improving central office support; and embracing new innovation and technology.

“This is not a finger-pointing exercise; this is the state of our schools,” Neu said.

Neu’s presentation took place in front of one of the largest school board crowds last week. Parents and teachers gave heartfelt appeals for the school board to improve school facilities and increase student activities.

A Star Spencer High School teacher cried when she discussed the poor condition of her building, and a parent of a young daughter said he was cautiously optimistic that change was coming.

Some parents are supportive of improving the district but fear money might be diverted from successful schools to struggling schools.

“I will not take anything from [successful] schools … I will not rob Peter to pay Paul,” Neu said. “Nobody will lose anything to shift costs or expenditures elsewhere.”

Neu said the district would look for money from private sources and a 2016 bond issue could also provide funds for building upgrades that he said were sorely needed. He also will appeal to the state Legislature.

Legislative presence

Neu has called the state’s A through F report card system a joke, criticized both political parties for its handling of Common Core and called out the state Legislature for not doing more to increase teacher salaries.

Neu’s arrival this year comes at a time when Oklahoma voters rejected the platform of its statewide superintendent and voted in Joy Hofmeister, whom Neu said he was glad to see taking the state’s top education post.

“It’s a vital relationship,” Hofmeister said about her relationship with the OKC school system. “I am eager to have a partnership with all superintendents throughout the state, but it is certainly going to be something that is extra important for those that serve the largest population of students.”

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has said education is a critical issue in its efforts to expand the local economy, and Drew Dugan, vice president of education and workforce development at the chamber, said it appears Neu will be the type of ally that has not always been found at OKC schools.

“Past superintendents [in Oklahoma City] have said what they want at the capitol, but the business community and educators need to go to the capitol together,” Dugan said. “You need a strong voice [at the capitol] … and I think we have it with [Neu].”

During an education conference Tuesday, Neu said he and the Tulsa school district would be developing their own standards and look to work with the state in creating benchmarks that “make sense.”

“I’m impressed,” said Rep. Jason Dunnington, who will enter his first legislative session next year. “He obviously has a lot of difficulties ahead of him, but he has taken the right path.”

Dunnington, whose district is in the OKC school system, was one of several state and city officials to attend Neu’s presentation.


The school board has appeared receptive of Neu’s plans, which he warns will be hard for some to adapt to.

“We can’t continue to do the things we have done in the past and expect change to happen,” said Lynne Hardin, chair of the school board.

Neu has also spoke a lot about improving the academic performance of African-American and other minority students, which is an area board member Ruth Veales said she is pleased to see.

“We have had lots of success [in the district] … but it has been long [time] since the African-American community has seen very much that we can say it has taken and sustained,” Veales said.

Print headline: The first 100, The OKC public schools superintendent has finished his first 100 days on the job, and he has assessed the district’s situation for good and bad.

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