Schoolhouse Blues

Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation in per-pupil expenditures and teacher salaries. And in light of the state legislature’s cuts to K-12 funding for fiscal year 2012, those numbers aren’t looking any brighter in the near future. As the need to support Oklahoma’s students becomes increasingly important, accomplishing the task has never been more difficult for public schools.

The latest round of cuts – some 4.1 percent – is leading to desperation on the parts of the state’s beleaguered school districts as they struggle to stay afloat while still providing – and improving – educational opportunities
for their students.

Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Karl Springer puts it bluntly.

“Cuts over the last three years have been horrendous,” he says. “The sky’s not falling, but boy, it’s cloudy.”

For Springer’s district, the state’s budget demands translate to somewhere between $3.8 million and $4.1 million in cuts for the upcoming fiscal year. This, in a district where 91 percent of pupils are on the free lunch program, almost 2,000 are homeless and the student population size is increasing as rapidly as funds are dwindling.

“We have to give students the support and services they need, because their futures and abilities to be successful are unknowable,” Springer says. “We’ve got to recognize that we have future doctors, architects and attorneys, and we need to do what we can to help them be successful.”

The district has undertaken some drastic and creative measures to weather the storm.

“We looked at every aspect of our operation,” Springer says. “We asked, ‘Is this something we absolutely have to do?’ If the answer was no, we stopped doing it.”

Last year, this translated to $11 million in cuts for the district, including teaching positions – initially around 100, although some 30 positions were added back as soon as possible – employee furloughs, slashing energy and overhead maintenance costs, and the sale of buildings owned by the district. According to Springer, $10 million of those cuts will continue for next year – but it is still not enough.

Fact: In Oklahoma City Public Schools 91 percent of pupils are on the free lunch program, almost 2,000 are homeless and the student population size is increasing as rapidly as funds are dwindling.

“Public education is in crisis in our state,” concurs Springer’s colleague, Tulsa Public Schools superintendent Keith Ballard.

Ballard’s district was forced to cut 225 teaching positions last fall, and recently announced a $4.2 million reduction in Tulsa’s special education budget, including $2.3 million in employee position cuts, $1.3 million in contracts with outside mental health service providers and $600,000 in supplies, travel and professional development. 

“Previous budget cuts by the state would have impacted special education services earlier,” Ballard says, “but we had been able to fill the gap by using federal stimulus dollars. But those dollars are gone now, and this is the result, which puts us in a difficult position. Of course, we will remain in compliance with the district and federal legal requirements.”

While the community is howling at this latest manifestation of Tulsa Public Schools’ ongoing budget woes, Ballard and Springer both call for Oklahoma citizens to take action.

“I would recommend that anybody who takes issue with these cuts needs to contact their state legislator,” Ballard says. “If we had the $5 million that the state put into the voucher system, that would have paid for these programs we are having to cut. Don’t blame the schools.”
While such initiatives as Project Schoolhouse, a massive realignment and reimagining of Tulsa’s individual districts, are set to save Tulsa Public Schools some $5 million, the benefits of the program will not be recognized for at least another year. In the meantime, Ballard says, the school district has a financial shortfall of more than $6 million for which to account. And while he sticks by his commitment to protect teaching positions in the coming fiscal year, he does not rule out the possibility of attrition and other losses.

But, while to say the districts are stretched thin would be a massive understatement, neither Tulsa nor Oklahoma City Public Schools are taking the crisis lying down. Both superintendents are determined to move beyond the mere survival of their districts; they are still making plans to provide a better education for the students who rely upon them.

Fact: Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom of the
nation in per-pupil expenditures and teacher salaries.

“It’s so important that we recognize that we need to improve our students’ quality of education,” Springer says.

One of the ways Oklahoma City Public Schools plans to accomplish this is through the adoption of a continuous learning calendar, which, among other changes, will see district schools opening for classes Aug. 1 – about three weeks sooner than most districts.

“The continuous learning calendar will provide new opportunities for students to attend school early and for more student remediation,” Springer says.

In addition, Oklahoma City will welcome 54 teachers from Teach for America to the district, and add 30 new pre-kindergarten teachers.
“We’ve truly tried to stretch every nickel we have to provide quality education for our children and for it to be better every year,” Springer says.

Ballard, too, has been busy, guiding Project Schoolhouse from theory into reality and making big plans for the future of his district and its students.

In the meantime, both superintendents are steering their ships through some very stormy seas.

“The class sizes we had last year – and the year coming up – are unacceptably large,” Springer says. “But we can’t hire more teachers to achieve an educational program optimum. The legislature needs to understand that this is what small government looks like. There is something wrong with having to have such large class sizes. The most important aspect of this state’s future is the kids that go to public schools.”

Springer also touts the need for financial relief for Oklahoma’s overburdened teachers.

“We’ve got to make it so people who teach are paid a salary that commands some respect. Salaries simply aren’t high enough, and people who take on this job because they love children place an economic burden on themselves and their families,” he says.

Ballard emphasizes the role the public can play in drawing attention to public schools’ challenges.

“Education is in crisis, and if parents and community members don’t voice their dissatisfaction, it may be too late to turn the tide,” he says.

“We at TPS are doing everything in our power to ‘right the ship’ – from Project Schoolhouse, to Teacher-Leader Effectiveness that you will be hearing more about as we begin to communicate this important initiative. Now it’s up to citizens to tell our legislators that public education needs to be our number one priority. To do anything less is to do a disservice to our children and future generations.”

 

Not Just Cost-cutting

In the wake of recent cuts to state funding for K-12 public education, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard had a vision called Project Schoolhouse. The initiative is expected to save Tulsa Public Schools approximately $5 million annually and includes the realignment and consolidation of the city’s individual school districts and the closing of several schools. But there is much more to the project than saving a buck.

“For me, it became a very personal mission to restore equity in education to a system that has been rife with inequities,” Ballard says. “Now, by leveraging student numbers more efficiently, we will be able to restore programming like art, music, physical education and other curriculum that had slowly been chipped away at a number of schools. This is great news for children who have not had the benefit of an expanded curriculum. Additionally, I believe the restructuring of grade configuration will better serve TPS students.”

The project calls for the closure of 14 buildings, 13 of which are schools. Nine facilities – Bryant, Gilcrease, Hamilton, Houston, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Nimitz, Phillips and Rogers – will be repurposed, with students redistributed to other schools. One facility at Monroe will be reopened as a school. Ballard has worked closely with parents and other members of the Tulsa community during the changes. He says they have been very supportive and recognize the need for change.

“Project Schoolhouse has always been about providing a quality learning experience for every student,” he says. “It’s about allocating our resources equitably and meeting a high educational standard. Our goal is to make every neighborhood school of a consistently high quality so parents will feel comfortable sending their children there.”

 

A+ High Marks

While the state’s public education system may be facing dark times, some Oklahoma schools are receiving national recognition for the quality of education they offer. Both the Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City and Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa recently were named to the top 100 of Newsweek’s “America’s Best High Schools” list. Both schools are funded by their respective districts and consistently receive honors for their programs, teachers and students.

Valerie Harris, principal at Classen SAS, attributes her school’s success to exceptional teachers, parental involvement, motivated students and close attention to school data.

“We encourage staff to be creative and innovative and to think out of the box,” Harris says. “If something does not work, we will evaluate it, adjust and try again.”

“The secrets to our success are the teachers, students, parents and the community,” says James Furch, Booker T. Washington principal.
He cites the numerous honors students receive – including more than $15 million in scholarship funds recently received by a senior class of less than 300 pupils – as evidence of the school’s exceptional results.

Building upon the school’s already impressive reputation, Harris plans to keep Classen’s programs growing apace with its future.
“We never want to become stagnant,” she says. “We are always looking and searching for ways to improve.”
 

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