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Tulsa charter schools face growing pains as they expand to more grades

In desperate need of a building to house its new high school, Tulsa Honor Academy brought one in from Arkansas with only months to spare.

Eleven trailers arrived at an empty lot across the street from the charter’s middle-school campus in early July. It took three and a half weeks to transform them into a functional school for about 100 ninth-graders, said Elsie Urueta Pollock, Tulsa Honor Academy founder and executive director.

“Well, I shouldn’t say functional because we were still waiting for electric to be installed,” Pollock said. “We actually ended up getting electricity in the building just two or three days before school started. So we were barely able to get it off the ground, but we did it.”

Facility expansion has been the biggest challenge for three Tulsa Public Schools-sponsored charter schools that are in the process of taking on additional grades.

For one, charters don’t receive the local tax dollars and bond money that traditional schools use to purchase buildings. Instead, they rely on already-limited state funding if they need a bigger space, said Eric Doss, director of quality charter services at the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center.

“What that means is they end up using the funds that are supposed to go in the classroom just to afford a classroom,” Doss said.

Growing pains have hampered Tulsa Honor Academy since it opened in 2015. The school, which originally served only fifth-graders and continues to add a grade every year, moved three times in its first month while a permanent place in east Tulsa was prepared.

When the first location inside the annex building at Rogers High School didn’t work out, the charter relocated to Monroe Demonstration Academy. That lasted a week.

“We had to leave Monroe because they needed their school back,” Pollock said.

Tulsa Honor Academy ended up moving into the permanent building months before it was ready. The school remained there for three years. It outgrew the facility with the addition of eighth grade and moved into the former Bell Primary Elementary, 209 S. Lakewood Ave., in 2018-19.

This is the first year of Tulsa Honor Academy’s expansion into high school. There’s no room for the approximately 100 new students inside the current middle school, prompting Pollock to order a mobile facility from out of state.

Pollock said she hopes to secure a permanent facility for the high school by 2020-21, but options are limited in east Tulsa. If she can’t find one before 10th-graders join the mix, she’ll have to install another temporary building.

“And we’ll have to add parking because at that point, our students will be sophomores,” she said. “So we’re just kind of sinking all this money into a facility that, at most, we’ll be able to stay in for two years.”

Expanding into high school hasn’t been any easier for KIPP Tulsa, which began serving freshmen in 2018-19 and welcomed sophomores this year. The remaining grade levels will be added during each of the next two years, with plans for up to 500 students when fully enrolled.

KIPP, which previously offered grades 5-8, opened the high school on the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus after its initial plan fell through to lease space at the Edurec Youth and Family Fun Center in north Tulsa.

Because there wasn’t enough room at OSU-Tulsa to accommodate the high school’s growing enrollment, KIPP officials scrambled to find a bigger space for its second year. The Tulsa school board in April voted to temporarily house the students, most of whom live in north Tulsa, at the vacant ECDC-Porter building in southwest Tulsa. The agreement was good for up to two years.

Don Parker, interim executive director at KIPP Tulsa, said the move wasn’t ideal, in part because Porter is nowhere near its student population. There’s also the issue of having high-schoolers attend a school designed for early childhood students.

“But other than that, it’s a nice, well-maintained building,” Parker said. “It’s serving our purposes very well this year. Plus, we’re used to taking what we can get in terms of facilities.”

The building is too small to be a permanent solution, however. School leaders continue to work with Tulsa Public Schools to identify another suitable location for when the high school outgrows Porter in 2021-22. So far, there haven’t been any viable options.

What happens if they can’t find a place in two years?

“Well, you can’t run a school without a building, right?” Parker said. “So the answer to your question is, I’ve got to find a facility. Now, it may mean that we have to throttle our expectations. We have a design for high school that could accommodate close to 500 students. If we are only able to find a facility solution that allows us to serve 300 students, then we will adjust our high school model.”

Collegiate Hall, meanwhile, plans to begin expanding to prekindergarten through third grade next school year. The charter, which currently offers grades 4-8, will add two grade levels per year at 60 students per grade, ending with a total addition of 300 students.

Like the others, Collegiate Hall has no room for more students at the facility it shares with Marshall Elementary near 56th Street and South Peoria Avenue. Multiple classes are taught in trailers behind the school.

It’s up to Nikhil Kawlra, executive director of the college preparatory school, to come up with a plan to acquire another building.

Right now, that plan is “up in the air,” according to Kawlra.

“I wish I could tell you we have a concrete plan in place, but those are details we’re still trying to work out,” he said. “Potentially, with the district. Maybe on our own.”

Although TPS approved the expansion, Kawlra said it’s not the district’s role to find Collegiate Hall a space to use.

The hardest part is coming up with the money. It could cost a quarter of a million dollars for Collegiate Hall to run its own building each year or several million dollars to purchase a property. With no local funding available, Kawlra said charter schools have to secure either a grant or take it out of their operating budgets.

Compounding the problem, he added, is the lag in funding for charter schools utilizing a slow-growth model, meaning they add a new grade each year.

State funding in Oklahoma is awarded to schools based on their enrollment from the previous year. Midyear adjustments are made in January, meaning charters don’t receive full funding for the annual influx of students until halfway through the school year.

“That’s the other major funding challenge, that you’re always playing catch up until you arrive at full growth,” Kawira said. “For the first six months of the year, you’re operating on less money than you ultimately need, and then in January, that obviously rectifies itself. But until you have rectified it, it can be challenging.”

Lankford goes around roadblock on election security measures: 'I've not waited on the bill to get passed'

U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s name is coming up in connection with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a potentially uncomfortable way for such stories about election security that refer to McConnell as “Moscow Mitch.”

Also often mentioned is Lankford’s pending legislation on the subject and his warnings about the vulnerability of U.S. elections and voting technology.

Lankford, though, said he’s OK with being set up as something of a foil against the leader of his own party.

“I’ve been working on this 2½ years,” Lankford said in Tulsa last week. “When people say my name’s being dropped (into the discussion), it’s because I’ve been working on it. And I think it should actually get done.”

Lankford feels so strongly about it that he’s been going around his congressional colleagues to get security measures implemented.

“I’ve not waited on the bill to get passed,” he said. “Because I serve on Homeland Security (and) the Appropriations subcommittee for Homeland Security, I’ve met multiple times with leadership over the past several years, and they’ve started implementing the things in my bill through their own deliberate action.”

Underlying most of these efforts is an effort at greater cooperation among state and local officials and Homeland Security.

To a degree unusual for countries the size of the United States, the election apparatus is controlled by state and local governments. That makes it harder to systemically invade, but also more difficult to coordinate. For Lankford, the key minimum standard should “auditability” — a paper trail that allows election officials to verify that each vote is counted and counted properly.

The number of jurisdictions without auditable systems is shrinking rapidly, Lankford said, even as legislation that would require such systems is stalled in Congress.

McConnell has been attacked for not allowing Senate votes on two bills sent over by the Democrat-controlled House; the “Moscow Mitch” moniker has been attached by Democrats implying McConnell is complicit in Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections and hack into voting systems.

Lankford also has an election security bill, but it’s stalled largely because his co-author, Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, is running for president.

“We’ve had so many iterations of election security bills — I literally can’t even count how many iterations we’ve gone through,” Lankford said. “We’ve passed this around to every state and their secretary of state or election committee. ... We’ve gone through outside groups, we’ve gone through Republicans, Democrats on this, so I’m fully in it.”

Even with his efforts working through Homeland Security, Lankford says Congress ultimately needs to put something into law.

“The statute is important in the end because we’ll have elections in 2024, in 2028, in 2032, and I don’t want us to ever get lax,” he said. “This will be an issue from here on out. And if at some point it’s not in statute ... and if there’s not someone standing over their shoulder pushing them to do it, they’ll step back, and at that point we’ll be vulnerable.”

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Recommendations for commuted prison sentences are up 1,300% and paroles up 41%. So what's changed?

Early waves of criminal justice reform have generated a gargantuan 1,300% leap in favorable recommendations for commuted prison sentences, with paroles up a robust 41%, according to state government data.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended commutation for 140 inmates from March through August, compared to only 10 during the same span in 2018. There were 436 parole recommendations compared to 309.

Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steven Bickley credited the sharp rise in commutations directly to changes in state law that lessened sentences for simple drug possession and certain property crimes. Bickley said the boost in paroles is attributable to a change in attitude, because the pool of candidates was roughly the same as a year ago.

“I do think the result of it is inmates really have a sense of hope, and you think about hope and how important that is to the rehabilitation of people and the mental health of people,” Bickley said. “It’s a powerful force for good. That is what I think our board is bringing to this process. And Judge McCall, his real mantra is he wants to make sure everyone gets a fair hearing.”

Allen McCall, a retired longtime district judge for Comanche and Cotton counties, runs the board hearings. McCall is the only member of five who has previous experience on the board.

McCall, who first was appointed to the board by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2017, said a common complaint he heard at the time was that the board already would have its mind made up before hearings took place.

“I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t like that perception,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure everyone knows we don’t have our mind made up.”

McCall emphasized the process must be fair and transparent. No matter the outcome, he said, inmates, victims, prosecutors and defense lawyers must feel they were fairly heard and respected.

He said a new attitude toward criminal justice reform has infiltrated the state, including Gov. Kevin Stitt, legislators, the board and citizens.

“We’ll see if in a year or two we have a lot of recidivism and we went a little overboard,” McCall said. “But we have to do something different because what we’ve done the past 30 years hasn’t really worked.”

Stitt has denied three of the 436 parole recommendations and four of the 140 commutations in that six-month stretch, according to a spokeswoman. The board recommends approvals, but the final say lies with the governor.

Stitt recruited Bickley to become the agency’s executive director, which happened in early July with board approval.

Bickley said he thinks the current law changes will continue to flood the system with commutations for the next six or eight months.

Eventually, another round of criminal justice reforms likely will keep the volumes flowing, he said.

A potential trend to keep an eye on is a rise in pardons.

Pardon recommendations increased 23% in the six-month comparisons, with the number of cases considered up 16%. So, not a large effect or change.

Bickley thinks people carrying felonies on their record for simple possession who struggle to find work or are unable to pursue their chosen careers will seek pardons in larger numbers to then expunge those convictions. Other motivations likely will be people who want Second Amendment rights restored to go hunting with family or friends.

So far, the typical favorable pardon recommendations are for people who have been good, Bickley said. They have paid their dues and are rehabilitated and model citizens.

“I think we’re probably a couple years from that before (that trend) starts hitting, but I do think it’s a logical extension of the process,” he said.

Other legislative changes are helping streamline board processes.

The creation of an administrative parole function allows the board in a single vote to recommend a batch of inmates with non-violent crimes for parole because each meets all the qualifications without need of individual case investigations.

Justin Wolf, the board’s general counsel, said the requirements are substantial compliance with in-custody plans, no victim or district attorney objections, and no misconduct over a given time period.

Wolf emphasized the new process isn’t an early parole.

“It’s a streamlined process, not an accelerated process,” Wolf said.

Bickley said board members also look at prison relief options as a tool to monitor actions on the outside or reward behavior even if a person won’t be released.

For example, an inmate is scheduled to be released in three months after accumulating good-time credits. However, that inmate is eligible for parole now with one year of supervision. The board may opt to let the inmate out now rather than unconditional release with no supervision in three months.

Or, in another scenario, an inmate is serving three consecutive sentences. The board may consider parole for that inmate, knowing that he or she won’t be released because there are another two sentences still to be served.

“Our board oftentimes wants to recognize the rehabilitative behavior that the inmate’s been doing even though it doesn’t mean they’re going to get out,” Bickley said. “And so those are the kinds of things that we’re trying to help and present to the board. And we’re trying to give them tools and techniques and spreadsheets that make it easier to draw their attention to their decision-making factors.”

Correction, clarifications: This story misstated the type of release considered for inmates with consecutive sentences. It has been corrected. The story was edited after publication to clarify the origin of Allen McCall's appointment to the board, as well as the amount of supervision for parolees.

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