The state Education Department is looking to hire someone to manage national media appearances, raising concerns the agency would be boosting Superintendent Ryan Walters’ national profile at taxpayer expense.
A firm is being sought to provide print and digital op-eds to national outlets, coordinate national events and appearances for executive staff, write speeches and handle some communications. Records show the department wants a minimum of three opeds, two speeches and 10 media bookings per month.
Walters, who is less than one year into a four-year term as superintendent, is already a frequent guest on conservative television and radio programs. And on Wednesday, Walters announced he’s joining Donald Trump’s presidential re-election campaign team, but didn’t provide specifics on how it would affect his role as state superintendent.
Critics of the contract said the public shouldn’t have to pay for Walters’ political ambitions.
“Why would an Oklahoma elected official need a paid staff person to arrange national media appearances in order to do their job in the state of Oklahoma?” said Erin Brewer, communications chair for Oklahoma Parent Legislative Advocacy Coalition, a grassroots education advocacy group. “It sounds like campaigning to me.”
Walters’ administration already employs Dan Isett as the director of communications and Abby Baerveldt as the deputy communications director, as well as Matt Langston as chief policy advisor. Langston is also Walters’ campaign manager.
There are no payment terms listed in the proposal, which is open through Nov. 9, according to Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services records.
Isett did not answer questions Oklahoma Watch posed Tuesday.
Brewer said she finds the proposal stunning and concerning. She questioned how such a contract would serve Oklahoma schoolchildren.
“You have to think that he (Walters) believes that he is destined for some other office, some higher office, some different role, and it seems like he’s using his current position to leverage his own opportunity,” Brewer said.
In just the month of October, Walters’ posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, eight TV and radio interviews he did with conservative news and talk shows and an op-ed he wrote about Hamas and Israel.
Appearances like those wouldn’t violate state ethics rules unless there was overt campaigning, like advocating for or against a specific candidate in a specific election, Ethics Commission Executive Director Ashley Kemp said, speaking in general terms about the commission’s work.
James Davenport, associate dean for social sciences at Rose State College, said nobody begrudges a public official who does an interview every now and then to tout the work their administration has accomplished. The emphasis Walters’ administration has placed on those interviews is different, he said.
“His national reputation has become a priority with that department,” Davenport said. “People have a right to say, ‘Can we justify that?’ At some point, is this becoming a distraction to actually doing the work of state superintendent of public instruction?”
The person behind Walters’ messaging style is Langston, his campaign manager and chief policy advisor at the department. His dual roles could run afoul of state ethics laws depending on how he splits his time, experts said.
Walters’ 2022 superintendent campaign is still fundraising even though he isn’t running for anything at the moment.
State ethics rules prohibit using state resources, funds or time for political activities. State officials and employees are required to separate time, money and resources spent on official duties from that used for campaigning.
Kemp said there’s no rule prohibiting a state employee from also being a campaign manager, but the employee would need to tread carefully.
“You really do have to walk a fine line to ensure state resources are never being used for campaign purposes,” Kemp said.
The department is also looking to contract with a firm to produce videos, according to a second request for proposals. The scope of that work includes creating video clips from department board meetings, at least two videos per month relaying education priorities and at least 10 digital communications per month.
The department has come under fire for producing inflammatory videos before, including a highly-dramatized, anti-teacher union video that was shown during the state Board of Education meeting in May. The Department paid $22,500 to Texas-based Precision Outreach LLC for 30 minutes of produced video, according to public records obtained by KOSU.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ jpalmerOKC.