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'You don’t know if people are really going to provide the connection and they have': Gathering Place doubles expected visitors in first year

Jeff Stava didn’t need to be asked the question. From time to time, it pops into his head: What would he have done differently?

What, a year after the opening of Gathering Place, does he look back on and wish he could change?

Not a thing, it turns out.

“I don’t really have anything that I think could have been better,” said Stava, executive director and trustee of Tulsa’s Gathering Place LLC. “We had so much community engagement and so much involvement by different constituencies and user groups.

“We have a really, really good riverfront park, a great riverfront park.”

Stava is not exactly an impartial observer. He oversaw construction of the 66.5-acre recreation area along Riverside Drive. But one does not have to take his word — follow the footsteps, and listen to the experts.

Time Magazine recently named Gathering Place one of the 100 Greatest Places to experience in 2019, the latest in a string of publications and industry organizations to recognize the park as something special. It’s the people, the throngs of people, that provide the strongest evidence that Stava and the George Kaiser Family Foundation — the major funder and driving force behind the project — got it right.

Through Friday, there have been 2.8 million guest visits to the park since it opened Sept. 8, 2018, according to Gathering Place. Park officials expected the number to be closer to 1 million.

“You never know,” Stava said. “You talk enough about it, you believe it, but you don’t know if people are really going to provide the connection, and they have.”

Park Director Tony Moore said that for all the media attention and accolades Gathering Place has received, the most gratifying moments have been the ordinary, everyday ones.

“The family that came from Arkansas with their kids who heard about the park, that is what did it for me,” he said. “Just family XYZ coming in. … To me, that is where it’s at.”

What would Moore change about the park?

“If we had to do it over again, I would build a catering facility,” he said. “We get a lot of requests.’

Additional or stronger water elements would also be on his wish list.

“Just because when it gets hot, it gets hot,” Moore said.

Gathering Place was envisioned to be a place that brought together diverse groups of people who might not otherwise interact. Moore said that will continue to be at the heart of the park’s mission, with events like La Fiesta de Tulsa and Caribbean Vibes expected to be annual events.

Later this year, Gathering Place will play host to a regional Native American cultural festival and welcome north Tulsa churches to participate in a gospel event called Tulsa in Harmony.

“It’s cool to see other cultures embracing the park and coming (together) as one with the history of Tulsa having some geographical and cultural divisions,” Moore said. “Have we nailed it? No, it’s still a work in progress, but I think we have made huge steps in the right direction.”

Gathering Place’s first year hasn’t been devoid of controversy. Some neighborhood residents have complained about visitors parking in the streets and the noise generated by concerts and shows.

But Stava says those complaints have subsided, in part because the park has reconfigured its sound systems and provided additional parking options.

“We’ve been working with communities around the city to provide free neighborhood shuttles on weekends and during larger events,” Stava said. “We are constantly evaluating sound levels as they dynamically interact with wind and other environmental variables. We continually make adjustments based on these results.”

Gathering Place represents the largest private gift to a public park in United States history. It was donated to the River Parks Authority by GKFF, which gave $200 million, including $50 million in land. The project has received more than $200 million in pledges from more than 80 corporate and community philanthropists, and the city of Tulsa contributed $65 million in park infrastructure and improvements to Riverside Drive.

And there are still two phases of the park to go.

Phase two will be centered around the new Tulsa Children’s Museum Discovery Lab to be constructed on 5.2 acres on the southeast corner of 31st Street and Riverside Drive. Officials initially announced it would be completed by March or April 2020, but the timeline has been extended.

In the meantime, Gathering Place is working to put together a plan that will incorporate public input for what attractions and amenities could be constructed to complement the museum.

“We want the Children’s Museum to kind of feel like it is in the middle of the park,” Stava said.

The phase two development will result in a loss of about 300 to 400 parking spaces, but Stava said that will be more than offset by a reconfiguration of the parking lot south of Crow Creek that will add about 300. Another 700 parking spaces are available on the west side of the Arkansas River near the old skate park. Shuttle service will be provided on weekends.

Phase three of Gathering Place will be constructed on approximately 12.5 acres just south of the Children’s Museum site. Stava said GKFF has yet to determine what that piece of the park will look like.

The day will come, though, when the entire park property is developed. But getting there, Stava said, can’t help but be complicated — in a good way — by the success of phase one.

“Because you want to build on that momentum and you want to deliver on new experiences and new things for people to do,” he said. “And you want it to be complementary to what you have already built. We are already kind of swirling around thinking about what that will look like and how it will all interrelate.”

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Mayor scraps police oversight plan; alternative in works

Mayor G.T. Bynum is scrapping his police oversight proposal and hopes to present an alternative to the City Council later this month, councilors were informed by email Friday evening.

“It has become evident to me in the weeks since presenting the proposal that it does not enjoy a consensus of support on the council,” Bynum wrote. “I am also mindful that it has been subject to criticism by community advocates who believe an OIM (Office of the Independent Monitor) existing within our current legal framework won’t do enough to earn trust in the community.”

Bynum told councilors he and his team are working to create a program that “will address similar goals through a less divisive vehicle” and asked for the opportunity to present it to them Sept. 25.

The OIM proposal had been scheduled for a vote Wednesday. At the mayor’s request, it has been pulled from the agenda.

Bynum first proposed creating an Office of the Independent Monitor in January, saying it would help establish trust between police and the community they serve through outreach and independent reviews of use-of-force incidents.

But it was met with immediate opposition from the police union, and nine months later, it does not have the support of all nine city councilors.

Councilors Kara Joy McKee and Vanessa Hall-Harper said last week they would like to see the powers of the OIM expanded. A similar sentiment was expressed by about a half-dozen Tulsa residents who spoke at the City Council’s public hearing on the oversight proposal.

At least three city councilors — Ben Kimbro, Connie Dodson and Cass Fahler — oppose the mayor’s proposal as it is currently written.

In a recent email sent to Tulsa Republicans, Fahler urged them to oppose the OIM, calling it a “government creation to satisfy a very vocal activist group of liberals.”

“It rewards those who are not willing to take responsibility for their actions, and lay the blame upon the providers of justice, our wonderful Tulsa Police Department,” Fahler wrote.

Bynum presented a draft ordinance creating the OIM to city councilors in late July. It calls for the office to have three primary responsibilities: to follow up on citizen complaints about police and review Tulsa Police Department Internal Affairs’ investigations of use-of-force incidents; review best practices for police and make policy recommendations; and conduct community outreach.

Nearly all of the pushback and consternation surrounding the proposal has been centered on the OIM’s oversight role in police use-of-force incidents.

According to the draft ordinance, the independent monitor would have 10 days from the completion of an Internal Affairs’s use-of-force investigation to complete his review. The reviews are intended to ensure that Internal Affairs investigations are done properly and thoroughly.

The monitor would have access to all information and evidence used in the IA investigation — but not until after the probe is done.

The independent monitor would have no disciplinary authority.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93, which represents Tulsa police officers, has said it does not oppose oversight but that it believes the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is best suited to provide a truly independent review of IA investigations.

Hall-Harper and McKee say they want to examine whether the monitor can begin his or her oversight duties at the start of the Internal Affairs investigations.

“I think they should be able to monitor in real time the complaints,” Hall-Harper said. “Not just sitting back waiting to give a response to what the Internal Affairs investigation chooses to share with them.”

She added that she would also like the OIM to have the authority to initiate its own investigations.

McKee said she believes giving the independent monitor access to IA investigations from the time they begin would help build confidence in the police force.

Real-time oversight would allow the monitor to support and assist the police in whatever capacity might be available, she said.

“We really want this to be supportive of the Police Department and to not just do something that is actually not going to be helpful at all,” McKee said.

Hall-Harper has reached out to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement to identify experts on police oversight who could review the city’s proposed OIM ordinance and its contract with officers.

“We don’t have that expertise in-house, so I want to talk to people who have consulted, who worked on these systems where oversight was implemented and get their feedback,” she said

Bynum told the Tulsa World on Friday morning that the OIM proposal he presented represents his best effort to provide oversight within the constraints of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with its police officers.

“Our legal department has advised that such interference would be a change in working conditions for our police officers, and a change in working conditions must be negotiated through the collective bargaining process,” Bynum said. “I cannot support something that violates a contract with our employees.”

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TPS officials say falling into $20 million deficit was inevitable without state intervention after years of education cuts

The looming $20 million budget cut for Tulsa Public Schools was inevitable without further state intervention, according to district officials.

When TPS dipped into its reserve funds to avoid a budget deficit in 2018-19, the district sought to buy time until lawmakers could restore at least some of the operational funds cut since the recession.

“We were hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” TPS Chief Financial Officer Nolberto Delgadillo said.

Recent gains from the Legislature did little to mitigate a decade’s worth of cuts to education funding. Although the past two years delivered historic pay raises for teachers, districts received almost nothing for school operations.

Oklahoma made more cuts to per-pupil funding than any other state from 2008 to 2018. Meanwhile, Tulsa Public Schools saw an enrollment loss of 5,000 students during that time, lessening its share of the state aid funding formula. The district projected a revenue loss of about $15 million between 2018-19 and the current school year.

Over the past few years, the district reportedly made reductions of close to $22 million through cutting positions, district office reorganizations, school closures and consolidations. It hasn’t been enough.

The continued financial loss forced TPS to rely on its reserve funds, or fund balance, for the first time in almost a decade last year. Officials used $4 million in 2018-19, dropping the fund balance to about $28 million. They expect to use $13 million to $17 million this year to close the budget gap.

Delgadillo said the fund balance is on track to run out by next year, giving way to the $20 million deficit. Now TPS must find a way to slash about 7% of its total budget.

It appears to be the largest shortfall the district has seen, at least in recent history, he said.

The school district has planned a series of public meetings at every high school during September and October to hear what services and supports matter most to families, employees and other stakeholders. Officials say they intend to narrow in on a core set of priorities to improve student experiences and regrow enrollment, which largely has been affected by the rising number of charter school options and suburban growth.

If nothing is done outside of eliminating $20 million before the 2020-21 school year, then Delgadillo estimates TPS will have to cut another $5 million to $6 million in 2021-22 with no fund balance for a safety net.

“The goal is to not go through a rinse-and-repeat cycle,” he said. “I think that’s what’s critical about the community engagement and how we’re focusing on investments that not only create a compelling argument for families to stay and come to Tulsa Public Schools, but it also addresses some of the structural issues to put us in a better place to address any sort of revenue shortfalls.

“And it’s definitely thinking through how we implement a long-term strategy. We’re talking about shaping our future. It isn’t shaping tomorrow. It’s about making those smart investments so that we put ourselves in position over the next several years.”

Rebecca Fine, education policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said she’s not surprised by the TPS shortfall given the decade of devastating budget cuts and lack of operational funding in the state’s recent education boosts.

During the 2018 legislative session, Oklahoma increased per-pupil funding by 19% after inflation. That was the largest increase among states that have made the deepest cuts to education funding since 2008, according to an annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

However, Oklahoma still remained the second-deepest cutting state in the nation after being surpassed by Texas.

“I think that really sums up the position that TPS is in — that we did make a historic amount of progress,” Fine said. “Great. But we also cut more than almost anyone else over the last 10 years. So I don’t know why we would expect that TPS wouldn’t be in a budget shortfall when we still have more work to do to get them the funding that they need.”

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TPS annual student membership 

School yearOct. 1 student membership
2019-20 Forecast36,065

Source: Tulsa Public Schools Preliminary School Budget and Financing Plan 2019-20