OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt abruptly booted a supporter of mask mandates from the State Board of Education and replaced him with a staunch opponent of them.
Stitt gave no explanation for why he quickly replaced his own appointee Kurt Bollenbach, of Kingfisher, on Thursday. Bollenbach had been confirmed by the state Senate in 2019. He had been serving an unexpired term on the State Board of Education, representing the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
Stitt appointed Enid resident Melissa J. Crabtree to serve until April 2023. Crabtree’s appointment must be confirmed by the Senate next year.
Crabtree recently founded Enid Freedom Fighters, a group of vocal residents opposed to mandatory COVID-19 mask ordinances in the city. Crabtree was described as "homeschool mom of two teens," in a Heidi St. John blog post earlier this year.
A Stitt spokesman did not respond to a question about whether Crabtree’s anti-mask philosophy factored into his decision to choose her.
Crabtree is a former teacher who is passionate about using her experience in the classroom to improve educational outcomes for all Oklahoma students, said Charlie Hannema, a Stitt spokesman.
“The governor believes she will be a great addition to the State Board of Education and appreciates Mr. Bollenbach’s service to our state," he said.
Earlier this year, Bollenbach, managing director of a small oil and gas operator in Northwest Oklahoma, was one of the three state board members who supported a controversial measure that would have mandated masks in public schools.
Stitt has long bucked calls to impose mask mandates, which have been proven to slow the spread of COVID-19. He has said any mandates should be left to local officials.
"Gov. Stitt says he can trust Oklahomans to make the right decision to wear a mask, and then appoints a woman for school board who has undermined personal responsibility in Enid by spreading disinformation about the benefits of mask wearing," said state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman. "The governor was right to say divisive rhetoric should stop, but he is empowering someone who has relished in it."
Bollenbach, an attorney, also had faced recent blowback from school choice advocates over proper implementation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act, which provides state-funded scholarships to children with disabilities so they can attend private school. The dispute hinged over which private schools should qualify for the program, and if some had discriminatory religious and sexual orientation policies.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said state boards are meant to advise and provide oversight to the agencies they serve.
"The governor, while choosing to replace board members as they move away from his point of view, is not using the State Board of Education as a tool to advise or provide oversight to our education system," she said. "He is using it to undermine the authority of Oklahoma's elected superintendent. This is another example of what has been the governor's biggest success since being inaugurated, which has been his ability to centralize power, and he has been aided in this power grab by Republican legislators."
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she’ll miss Bollenbach.
“Kurt Bollenbach has been an exceptional board member whose legal acumen, breadth of experience and commitment to excellence have been of great value to the State Board of Education,” she said. “He is a man of tremendous principle and integrity. Of course, I look forward to meeting his successor on the board, Ms. Crabtree, and anticipate a good working relationship with her, but I will miss Kurt’s bold leadership.”
Alicia Priest, president of Oklahoma Education Association, said Bollenbach was removed after voicing opinions about holding all schools accountable. He also was removed during a pandemic.
"These actions exemplify a focus that is not the best priority for Oklahoma," Priest said. "We need to focus on doing what's best for kids. Our students need state leaders who focus on good policy that comes from healthy discourse — not those who engage in loyalty tests and political games. Our students need state leaders who take decisive stands that will slow community spread in Oklahoma so all our kids can get back to learning in person."
In a Facebook post, Crabtree said she’s thankful for the opportunity.
“An opportunity, I wasn’t even looking for, but one for which I am thankful!,” she wrote. “I’m humbled, still surprised, and so excited! Editing to add my thanks up here too: You guys! Thank you for being so excited with me. I’ve read every comment, and you guys are the best. I want to steward this well, and anything that affects our kids has a generational impact. What a privilege this is!”
Crabtree, a gold leader at Young Living Essential Oils, directed further comment to Stitt's office.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.