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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

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Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, Feb. 8, 2016

Senate President Brian Bingman's school consolidation bill is a brave step in the right direction

We are delighted that state Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman has joined the movement to reorganize Oklahoma's schools along more rational lines.

Gov. Mary Fallin endorsed the same idea in her State of the State speech.

The state has more than 500 school districts, which is at least 100 too many, maybe more.

Bingman has proposed Senate Bill 1382, which would consolidate the administrative functions of the state's roughly 100 dependent school districts as of July 1, 2017. Dependent districts are typically some of the smallest in the state. They offer classes up to sixth or eighth grade. Dependent school district students transfer into nearby independent districts to complete high school.

While The Bingman plan heads in the right direction, the state can get there in a better way by reconsidering a couple of issues.

First, we are concerned that Bingman says his goal is to consolidate only the "administrative functions" of the districts. His bill's language doesn't go into great detail of what that means. He told Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock that it would include things like payroll, information technology, and centralized services.

All those things should be consolidated, but so should the political governance of the districts — the school boards.

Bingman said his bill would not close schools, and it shouldn't. That's a decision that should be left to local school boards; but unless the school boards of consolidated districts are also consolidated, school site choices will be warped by parochial concerns that aren't related to the most important issue, educational quality.

A concentration on educational quality also will bring a reconsideration on the solitary focus on dependent districts. Consolidation best enhances educational quality at the high school level, where economies of scale create opportunities for greater curriculum and program diversity. A big school is more likely to offer classes in advance mathematics, science, music and other challenges that every Oklahoma child should have a chance at.

Frankly, we're more concerned about a tiny independent school district than a tiny dependent district. The state Department of Education's latest count shows the state has 10 districts offering classes through 12th grade and fewer than 100 students. One independent district has only 63 enrolled students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

We also think Bingman should consider an exception for small districts that are proving their competence. If a small district — dependent or independent — can show that it is providing a world-class education to its students, why should the state want to close it? But the state needs to be very careful about such exceptions. They shouldn't be granted for any reason other than educational quality.

Bingman and Fallin are showing courage and leadership in backing school consolidation, and we admire them for taking the first step. It's not surprising that the forces of inertia were waiting to attack the idea from the start. Those who have a vested interest in keeping the state's education system weak won't give up easily.

If the do-nothings are going to fight rational reorganization of the school system, we might as well do things the best way possible. That way we are less likely to need to do it again later, and we can have a faster positive impact on the school children of Oklahoma.


The Journal Record, Feb. 8, 2016

A simple way to save

State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, has been a champion of keeping the public's business public.

This year, he filed Senate Bill 1299, a short, simple, bill — just a single page that says, "The Office of the Attorney General shall establish and implement an ombudsman program to assist the citizens of this state in the operation and enforcement of the requirements of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act, Section 301 et seq. of Title 25 of the Oklahoma Statutes, and the Oklahoma Open Records Act, Section 24A.1 et seq.of Title 51 of the Oklahoma Statutes."

Attorney General Scott Pruitt's staff will not welcome that idea with open arms. They will argue that with the $900 million or more the Legislature needs to find for the next fiscal year, the last thing they should be doing is adding anything new to state government. They will be wrong.

Holt's proposal wouldn't require the attorney general to establish a new office nor to spend any more money. Quite the opposite: Holt's bill would save taxpayers the cost of litigating many of the open government concerns raised by the public. The bill is modeled after a successful system in Texas, where the attorney general maintains a hotline for open-records and open-meetings questions. When there's a disagreement about whether a particular document is subject to the act, either party may contact the ombudsman who quickly — usually within an hour or two — responds with previous AG opinions or applicable statutes that provide guidance. It's non-binding, but it avoids a lot of drawn-out, costly legal battles.

When a member of the public asks for a document and the record-keeper believes it must remain confidential, there's a quick, painless way to settle the dispute that doesn't require a lawsuit or criminal complaint. If the record-keeper disagrees with the guidance, she may still decline to produce the document and let a judge decide. Similar disputes over executive session agendas, or what constitutes a meeting can also be resolved quickly.

In Oklahoma, the attorney general cannot provide legal opinions to the public. But as the general counsel to state agencies, boards and commissions, the AG would be doing his clients a great service by helping resolve questions quickly and inexpensively and avoiding litigation. Further, he would be providing a great service to Oklahomans.

We encourage Attorney General Pruitt and the Legislature to welcome SB 1299 as a model of government efficiency and openness.


The Oklahoman, Feb. 3, 2016

Getting executions right is focus for Oklahoma AG's office

Five executions are now pending in Oklahoma, after the state Court of Criminal Appeals agreed last week to hold off on setting execution dates for two more death row inmates. The move by the court was proper and not surprising.

That's because the next time Oklahoma executes an inmate, everything about the procedure must be beyond reproach. That didn't happen in recent examples, leading Attorney General Scott Pruitt to investigate via a multicounty grand jury.

That work is ongoing. Meantime, Pruitt says he would like to see the state Department of Corrections work to obtain a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and for the state to consider establishing a compounding pharmacy. They are ideas that have merit.

Because the DOC does not have a license from the DEA, it cannot store execution drugs at the state prison in McAlester. Thus, the drugs used in executions are delivered to the prison on the day those executions are to be carried out.

Pruitt's grand jury is looking into how the wrong drug was delivered for the past two executions. One of the drugs in the state's three-drug combination is potassium chloride. Instead, potassium acetate was delivered for Richard Glossip's execution in September. The execution was halted when the mistake was realized. Authorities subsequently learned that potassium acetate had wrongly been used in the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner, a violation of the state's protocol.

One question Pruitt has, he told The Oklahoman's editorial board last week, is "How can we do a more effective job?"

If a compounding lab isn't a possibility, he said, then some change is needed "that deals with these issues of access, because we can't keep doing what we're doing. It will continue to be a problem."

Pruitt said that if a compounding lab were created, it could allow attorneys for death row inmates to have access to execution drugs to ensure their efficacy. The current system, which keeps the drug providers secret and the drugs off-premises, has been a key point raised by litigants.

Oklahoma's execution protocol was overhauled in 2014 after a grisly execution in April of that year when Clayton Lockett writhed and groaned on the gurney before being declared dead 43 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation found numerous problems with the state's execution practices. But problems continued even after those practices were revamped.

The delayed executions are difficult on the families of the victims who have waited years for a resolution, but they're also difficult on the loved ones of those condemned. And, each misstep made in carrying out an execution adds fodder to the ongoing push to do away with the death penalty in the United States.

"Where we are right now as a state, if we don't make the right changes in the long term, it will bring about the ultimate demise of the death penalty," Pruitt said. He added later, "I don't think we're there yet." He's right about that — polling consistently shows the death penalty enjoys solid support in Oklahoma.

Yet Pruitt also is correct in saying that how the state responds to its current challenges is vitally important. He believes drug injection is the most humane way to carry out an execution. "So," he said, "our first step should be, 'How do we do that in the most effective way?' "

It's a question that must be answered correctly.

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