This is an updated version of the article that appears in the Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, digital and print editions, with added information that became available after our deadline Friday.
Although surprised by Gov. Kevin Stitt’s action to replace him on the state board of education, Kingfisher oilman and municipal judge Kurt Bollenbach said he harbors no ill will about last week’s decision.
“The Governor’s office called me yesterday (Thursday) and told me I was being replaced,” he said. “I didn’t really get a reason, but they thanked me for my service and were very nice. I’m sad that I won’t be able to finish out my term because there are four or five really pressing issues that I’d like to see through, but the Governor has the right to appoint and remove board members for any reason. For whatever reason, he decided I just wasn’t the guy for him right now.”
The decision became public on Friday after Stitt filed an official document through the secretary of state announcing the appointment of Melissa Crabtree of Enid to replace Bollenbach, who was also a Stitt appointee.
In response to a request for comment from the Times & Free Press, Stitt’s chief of communications, Charlie Hannema, released the same statement shared with other state newspapers, which initially erroneously identified Crabtree as a former social worker as well as former teacher. The Governor's office released a revised statement correcting its error after the Times & Free Press Sunday print edition had already gone to press:
“Melissa Crabtree is a former teacher who is passionate about using her experience in the classroom to improve educational outcomes for all Oklahoma students. The Governor believes she will be a great addition to the State Board of Education and appreciates Mr. Bollenbach’s service to our state.”
Bollenbach is one of four people Stitt appointed in April 2019 to serve on the state education board.
A graduate of Kingfisher High School, Bollenbach also currently serves as municipal judge for the city of Kingfisher and as an oil and gas operator for Teocalli Exploration LLC, which operates throughout Northwest Oklahoma. Bollenbach earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Oklahoma State University in 2002 and a juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma School of Law in 2005.
Prior to working in the oil and gas industry, Bollenbach served as a private attorney at Harrison & Mecklenburg in Kingfisher, after working as a military attorney in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps. Upon completion of U.S. Army Officer Basic Course in 2006, Bollenbach was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, where he acted as general counsel for commanders, provided legal assistance to service members and acted as military claims officer.
His service on the board has involved a number of hot button issues, including teacher salaries, COVID-19 and reducing its impact on students, faculty and staff and issues related to virtual schools and school compliance with scholarship programs designed to promote school choice for parents of special needs children.
“I love digging into complicated issues and probably spent about 40 hours a month on reading and research, in addition to attending meetings,” Bollenbach said.
While debates at board meetings could become heated, Bollenbach said he had nothing but respect for his fellow board members, all of whom took their jobs seriously.
“We were fortunate to have a board where everyone was ready to put in the time to prepare,” he said. “Issues are clearly identified, positions are argued very passionately but at the end of the day we were always very respectful toward one another and tried to work together as a team,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s exactly how a governing board should work.
“We worked to solve problems as a team and I’m confident they’ll continue to work like that, regardless of who is serving on the board.”
Bollenbach was among a minority of board members who voted to institute a mask mandate at all state public schools when COVID-19 cases continued to climb. He also drew criticism from school choice advocates for leading a vote to delay approval for two private schools applying for state-funded scholarships for special needs children. Bollenbach defended that decision in a previous article in this newspaper as being based on the schools’ anti-discrimination policies, which he said fell short of federal and state law requirements.
“It was not an anti-school choice decision at all,” he said at the time.
Bollenbach also joined other board members in a recommendation to withdraw more than $11 million in state funding from Epic Charter Schools based recommendations in a lengthy and critical state audit.
Bollenbach praised both Supt. Joy Hoffmeister and the state education department staff, whom he said are tasked with an essential state function under extremely difficult circumstances.
“I have been nothing but impressed with Supt. Hofmeister,” he said. “She is a class act and the staff there are woefully understaffed for the scope of their mission and they work long hours in a very thankless environment.
Hofmeister shared similar praise for Bollenbach in an online article published Friday by the Tulsa World.
“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,” Hofmeister was quoted as saying in the Tulsa paper. He is a man of tremendous principle and integrity.”
Stitt’s appointment of Crabtree will extend until April 2023, but first must be confirmed by the State Senate in a vote expected in early 2021. Crabtree was identified in an Enid newspaper article as the founder of a group of residents opposed to a mandatory mask ordinance in Enid.
Members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses issued statements Friday criticizing Stitt’s decision to remove Bollenbach.
“The governor’s decision to suddenly remove Kurt Bollenbach as a member of the State Board of Education is very disappointing,” said State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-OKC. “As a member of the Senate Education Committee, I found him to be incredibly accessible and a strong ally in supporting public education. Kurt’s service to our state and his voice at the table will be greatly missed. The announcement of the new appointee has taken the education community by surprise. We urge her to clarify her views regarding the health and safety of our students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
“It is deeply concerning that Governor Stitt chose to remove a state school board member who has publicly committed to transparency and accountability in spending,” said State Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “Ending the corruption, mishandling of our tax dollars, and keeping our students safe and healthy must be our top priorities. When the governor stacks the board with individuals with limited experience, working families will continue to suffer. Oklahomans deserve better than what he is delivering.”
“Governor 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.”
“Boards are meant to advise and provide oversight to the agencies they serve,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “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. He is using it to undermine the authority of Oklahoma’s elected state 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.”
For his part, Bollenbach joked about his family’s reaction to his removal from the board.
“There’s a little bit of relief there,” he said of his suddenly regained free time.
Bollenbach and his wife Brooke have three children: daughter Brittan, a sixth grader, and sons Barron, a fourth grader, and Brooks, a kindergartner. He is the son of Barry and Joyce Bollenbach of Kingfisher.