Bixby High Staffers File for Office



Teachers protest in the Oklahoma state Capitol.

Ralph Bernhardt, Reporter

Two Bixby High School employees have announced that they will run for  seats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Assistant principal Melissa Provenzano, running as a Democrat in District 79, and English teacher Cody Coonce, running as a Republican in District 80, are not the only educators who filed for legislative seats. Teachers and administrators swarmed the Capitol on April 11-13 to register for the ballot. It’s the largest political initiative ever launched by Oklahoma teachers, with candidates from all over the state signing up to run against incumbents or for open seats.

The campaign didn’t come out of nowhere. More than 30,000 people showed up at the state Capitol on April 2 to begin a two-week protest over Oklahoma’s exceptionally underfunded public schools. Before the teacher walkout, Oklahoma was second only to one state in educational spending – Mississippi. Oklahoma teachers were paid as little as $31,600 a year, an income barely above the family poverty line. About one-fourth of the state’s school districts have stopped teaching one day of the week and closed buildings on Fridays to save money.

Several days before the walkout, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill to raise teacher pay by an average of $6,100. However, educators protested to restore funding to schools whose state allocations have been cut for many years.

Sensing that time was ripe for change after several additional cuts (especially the elimination of gradual teacher pay raises), the Oklahoma Education Association and other teachers’ unions announced plans for a walkout beginning April 2. Public school teachers are not allowed to strike in Oklahoma because they are considered essential workers, like firefighters and police. Instead, they declared a walkout and hundreds of school districts backed the initiative to advocate for full funding of education in the state. Bixby Public Schools took part in the protest and remained closed until April 16.

During the fortnight, tens of thousands of teachers arrived at the Capitol to wave signs, chant, speak with representatives, and make their voices heard.

Melissa Provenzano

“As I stood on the Capitol lawn and on street corners in a demonstration with my peers, as well as when I visited with our state senators and representatives to encourage them to fully fund education, I was, and still am, profoundly moved by the level of support from our community,” Provenzano says on her campaign website.

As of April 25, she has received $1,700 in contributions.

Provenzano’s pro-education position was echoed by Coonce. In an interview at the Capitol, he told NewsOK: “Education is the responsibility of all citizens – not a Republican or a Democrat issue. As we move forward in our state, we’re going to need bipartisan support.”

Cody Coonce

Coonce is running in the primary against incumbent Mark Ritze, while Provenzano is running for the open seat being vacated by Weldon Watson because of term limits. A likely opponent in the general election is Karen Gilbert, a Republican member of the Tulsa City Council.

Other eductors, as well as concerned friends and family, have filed to run for office. Randall Padek of Jenks, a special education teacher in Broken Arrow and cousin of Bixby High sociology teacher Scott Padek, threw his hat in the ring against incumbent Chuck Strohm in District 69.

El Reno middle school teacher Laura Griesel has raised more than $800 for her campaign in less than three weeks through a public Kickstarter campaign.

The public outcry generated by this initiative has spread globally. Multiple articles by the New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera have covered the teachers walkout to bring awareness of this campaign across the world.