An Extraordinary Crisis?

At a joint press conference earlier this week, a group of Tulsa-area leaders and school superintendents provided powerful arguments in an attempt to persuade state lawmakers to take immediate action to ease cuts on public schools.

Together with leaders of ImpactTulsa, a group that seeks better education for Tulsa-area students, these leaders painted a dramatic picture of proposed education cuts that could result in a loss of 667 positions from 15 school districts in the ImpactTulsa partnership.

The group estimates the loss in wages in the Tulsa area from education cuts could amount to $33.35 million from 667 cut positions, consisting of 330 teachers and 337 support, administrative and other positions.

Take a few seconds to let those numbers sink in.

Given the current fiscal situation, Tulsa area schools will start the new school year with at least 667 fewer teachers and school personnel. If you extrapolate those figures to Oklahoma at large, our state may be about to shed over 2,000 education jobs throwing a $100 million loss of wages on top of our already fragile economy.

This is no longer a drill. Schools are not making numbers up just to scare lawmakers into action. These numbers reflect real people who will not be in schools serving our children next year. This means significantly larger class sizes, reduced programming, a move to four-day school weeks for many districts, and fewer athletic and extracurricular activities for students.

According to the Tulsa Public School’s staffing plan unveiled on Monday, maximum class sizes in TPS will increase as follows (emphasis mine):

  • Kindergarten through third grade: from 22-23 (current level) to 26 in 2016-17.
  • Grades 4-6 at elementary schools: from 24-25 to 32.
  • Grade 6 at middle schools: from 25 to 29.
  • Grades 7-8 at middle schools and junior high schools: from 26 to 29.
  • Grades 9-12 at high schools, from 29 to 32. High schools would need 15 students instead of 10 in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

If you have never tried to teach 32 ten-year-old students in an urban school setting with limited resources, well, you just haven’t lived.

Despite the best efforts of hard-working educators, class sizes this large WILL have a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in these classrooms. An impact from which it will take years to fully recover, if ever.

Dr. Cathy Burden, Executive Director of ImpactTulsa, recently posted an impassioned article on the organization’s webpage detailing the potential impact of the education budget crisis on Oklahoma schools, including this final exhortation:

We are experiencing a defining moment for Oklahoma. The current looming state budget failure threatens the quality of education and therefore the future of our citizens.  Education is the most important investment we can make since it is correlated with health, economic growth, workforce development, and life/work satisfaction.  How our state responds will reflect how the state prioritizes its values and sets its trajectory for the future.  Let’s all work to encourage the state’s actions to be supportive to the goals of ImpactTulsa collective impact partners.

Dr. Burden and these other school and civic leaders are absolutely right. We must do something NOW.

And, that “something,” according to Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, needs to be “extraordinary.”

“It will take courage,” he said. “It will take a significant amount of political courage for them to do what’s necessary. It will be our responsibility to provide them with political cover when they do undertake the responsibility of making some very, very serious decisions.”

Ideally, our lawmakers would have been more inclined to make the right decisions during more “ordinary” budget years.

Yet, when oil was selling for $100 a barrel a few years ago, legislators chose to spend the extra proceeds on tax breaks and incentives for billion dollar corporations and passing a gratuitous income tax reduction.

It is important to remember that the annual cost of cuts to the top personal income tax rate enacted since 2005 is $1.022 billion, according to an analysis conducted for Oklahoma Policy Institute by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-partisan national research organization. This amount includes the reduction of the top income tax rate to 5.0 percent from 5.25 percent that took effect in January 2016.

That extra one billion dollars would sure come in handy about now, wouldn’t it?

Yet, here we sit, just weeks from the end of the current legislative session and we have been told very little regarding the legislature’s plan to address the current $1.3 billion dollar budget shortfall.

This must be because our lawmakers are working 24/7 and simply don’t have the time to share any of the details. In fact they are probably on the House floor right now debating and voting on these important issues, don’t you think?

Or not.


Instead, maybe House leaders decided to shut down at 10:57 am today for a short 98-hour break.

It’s getting rather hot in Oklahoma and all I’m hearing is the sound of fiddles.

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