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Tulsa Public Schools asked community members how to slash $20 million from the budget. Here's how they responded

Tulsa Public Schools has released a report detailing the community feedback collected during a series of public meetings and through an online survey about the 2020-21 budget redesign effort.

Officials hosted 11 community engagement meetings through September and October and created the survey to hear from stakeholders about how the school district should slash $20 million from next year’s budget.

The report released Monday reflects responses from 5,773 individuals who completed the survey and 847 people who attended the meetings.

Tulsans consistently named teacher compensation, class sizes and social-emotional learning and behavioral supports as the areas they value most. They also indicated that they were most willing to make budget reductions related to student transportation and bell times, teacher leadership opportunities, building utilization and central office services.

Superintendent Deborah Gist, who led the meetings, said the input doesn’t surprise her. She noted that community members expressed their desire to focus on reducing services that don’t directly affect students and teachers, a sentiment shared by district officials.

“I think that I would say what we see in these results is that Tulsans care about their schools, and they care about the same things we care about,” Gist said. “They know we need to have reasonable class sizes. They want to make sure that teachers and support employees are compensated well. They care about the arts and extra programming. We care about all of those same things, as well.”

The district largely blames a $20 million deficit on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts to education. TPS has slashed $22 million since 2015 and dipped into its fund balance last year for the first time in a decade to avoid a negative balance. The fund balance is on track to run out by next year, giving way to the projected shortfall.

Gist has made clear that almost nothing is off the table when it comes to potential reductions. The community engagement meetings, in addition to the survey, were meant as a way for people to share their thoughts about where that money should and shouldn’t be cut.

“When it comes to looking at potential places for savings, all of us are really striving to find the kinds of things that will have as minimal an impact as possible for teachers and children,” she said. “There really isn’t anything that won’t have an impact, but we want to minimize that, and I think we all share that goal, too.”

In the meetings and survey, participants were provided lists of programs and services and asked to pick the five they value most.

They also developed hypothetical plans to save $20 by selecting investments with various values attached to them. For example, decreasing access to athletic programs was worth $1, while reducing central office services saved $2. The goal of this exercise reportedly was to highlight some of the complex choices that lie ahead.

The three largest groups that responded to the survey were parents at 32%, teachers at 21% and students at 17%. For the question about the most valued programs and services, 46% of survey-takers listed teacher compensation as a top choice, and 41% selected class sizes. Only 4% chose bell times, while 6% picked out-of-school-time learning and central office services.

For the exercise involving the $20 savings plan, 46% of survey-takers chose to change bell times, and 44% chose to reduce teacher leadership roles as well as building utilization. Reducing the central office was the fourth most popular choice at 43%.

Increasing class sizes and reducing teacher compensation were the least popular choices among survey-takers.

Among those who attended the meetings, the top choices for most-valued programs and services were maintaining behavioral and emotional supports at 31%, ensuring that students have high-quality academic materials and assessments at 26%, maintaining the current teacher-to-student ratio at 24% and increasing teacher pay at 23%.

The bottom choices were keeping bell schedules the same at 3% and maintaining training to help teachers train teachers at 6%.

Meeting attendees prioritized reducing the number of teacher coaches at 31%, reducing central office services at 29% and changing bell schedules to reduce transportation costs at 29%.

They least prioritized increasing class sizes and reducing the number of staff in schools.

The community feedback report also lists how people answered two open-ended questions about their biggest hopes for TPS and what concerns they have about the budget challenges.

The most prominent responses about hopes for the district involved ensuring that students have the best quality education and are prepared for post-secondary opportunities at 25%, improving services for students and families at 17%, teacher support at 14% and increasing special programs, enrichment courses and extracurriculars at 14%.

Participants’ biggest concerns were loss of service at 22%, increased class sizes at 20%, declining enrollment at 19%, teacher morale at 18% and student academic standards at 18%.

As part of the second phase of the budget redesign process, the district will begin conducting a series of closed workshops with key stakeholders this week to dive into the collected input.

“We’ll be looking more deeply into the feedback that we’ve gotten from the community during this first phase,” Gist said. “And we’ll also start to ask them to consider in more specific ways some of the tradeoffs around what we have to wrestle with when we’re looking at these really difficult choices.”

The third phase will involve three meetings with the Budget Advisory Committee as well as a second series of community-wide meetings from Dec. 9 through Dec. 12.

Gist plans to propose a modified budget to the school board by the end of January. Community members will have at least two opportunities to speak to board members about the superintendent’s recommendations before they vote on the proposal sometime during the spring semester.

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Trump viewed Ukraine as adversary, not ally, witnesses say

WASHINGTON — Behind closed doors, President Donald Trump has made his views on Ukraine clear: “They tried to take me down.”

The president, according to people familiar with testimony in the House impeachment investigation, sees the Eastern European ally, not Russia, as responsible for the interference in the 2016 election that was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller.

It’s a view denied by the intelligence community, at odds with U.S. foreign policy and dismissed by many of Trump’s fellow Republicans. But Trump’s belief suggests the extent to which his approach to Ukraine — including his request, now central to impeachment, that the Ukraine president do him a “favor” and investigate Democrats — was colored by a long-running, unproven conspiracy theory that has circulated online and in some corners of conservative media.

On Monday, Trump derided the impeachment probe anew as a “witch hunt,” insisting that he did nothing wrong in his phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

But those testifying in the impeachment inquiry, now entering its fifth week, are recalling that Trump’s views on Ukraine were seen as a problem by some in the administration.

Some of those testifying recalled a May meeting at the White House when U.S. officials, just back from attending Zelenskiy’s inauguration in Kyiv, briefed Trump.

Ambassador to the European Union Gordan Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker and other witnesses have described Trump as suspicious of Ukraine despite well-established American support for the fledgling democracy there. That’s according to publicly released transcripts, as well as people familiar with the private testimony to impeachment investigators. They were granted anonymity to discuss it.

Several witnesses have testified that Trump believed Ukraine wanted to destroy his presidency.

“President Trump was skeptical,” Sondland testified, according to his written remarks. Sondland said that only later did he understand that Trump, by connecting the Ukrainians with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was interested in probing the 2016 election as well as the family of his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing President Trump’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.”

House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry after a whistleblower filed a complaint that included Trump’s July call with Zelenskiy. The call was placed the day after Mueller testified to Congress and brought an end to the two-year Trump-Russia probe.

“Our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump told Zelenskiy, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House.

“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” Trump said. “The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

Trump was airing the conspiracy-theory view, shared by Giuliani, that the security firm CrowdStrike, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the 2016 hack of its email, may have had ties to Ukraine.

CrowdStrike determined in June 2016 that Russian agents had broken into the committee’s network and stolen emails that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks. The firm’s findings were confirmed by FBI investigators and helped lead to Mueller’s indictments of 12 individuals from Russia’s military intelligence agency.

But the loose conspiracy theory contends that the DNC email hack was a set-up, bolstered by fake computer records, designed to cast blame on Russia. Even the president’s Republican allies have tried to dissuade Trump from it.

“I’ve never been a CrowdStrike fan; I mean this whole thing of a server,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina last week.

Meadows, a confidant of Trump, said he’s sure Ukraine had some role in the U.S. election. But he views the search for the email server as farfetched. “I would not on my dime, send a private attorney looking for some server in a foreign country,” Meadows told reporters.

Perhaps contributing to the conspiracy theories surrounding CrowdStrike and the DNC is the fact that the FBI never took possession of the actual computer server that would have held the hacked emails.

Instead, the FBI relied on the forensics provided by CrowdStrike.

The FBI had “repeatedly stressed” to the DNC its desire to have access to servers, former FBI Director James Comey testified at a March 2017 hearing before a House panel. But he acknowledged it is not unusual for the FBI to use such forensics in place of the actual hard drive during cyber investigations.

Other Republicans have also tried to convince Trump it was not Ukraine that was involved.

Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, said Giuliani had done Trump a disservice by pushing the false story.

“I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president,” Bossert said in September on ABC. “It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again,” said Bossert, who also was an adviser to President George W. Bush. “That conspiracy theory has got to go; they have to stop with that; it cannot continue to be repeated.”

On the call, Trump went on to ask Zelenskiy to also look into Burisma, the Ukraine gas company with links to his 2020 presidential rival, Joe Biden’s family. Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board when the former vice president was the Obama administration’s main emissary to Ukraine.

Last week, Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump essentially engaged in a quid pro quo in seeking Zelenskiy’s help in exchange for military aid the White House was withholding from Ukraine.

Mulvaney said the request was not improper because Trump wanted help with the 2016 investigation rather than looking ahead to 2020. It is against the law to seek or receive help of value from a foreign entity in U.S. elections.

Mulvaney later clarified his comments, saying, “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”

In tandem with I-44 bridge work, city also replacing lighting

After a recent news story ran about a construction project affecting Interstate 44 in west Tulsa, a reader contacted the Tulsa World about a safety concern.

Lights on the I-44 Arkansas River bridge, which has been narrowed to two lanes in each direction, are out.

Highway lighting is the city of Tulsa’s responsibility within the city limits, and the city for years has been trying to replace wiring and lighting following a rash of copper thefts that have left stretches of highways in the dark.

A city spokeswoman on Monday said the city will be taking advantage of the I-44 construction project to replace lighting on the Arkansas River bridge.

“The city contractor, TLS (Traffic & Lighting Systems), will be working in the lanes that will be closed during the project, to have access to the light fixtures while traffic is not in the lane,” city spokeswoman Lara Weber said in an email.

She said, however, an exact date of when they will be back on was not immediately available.

The $4 million project by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation involves crews replacing expansion joints on the bridge.

It began Oct. 14 and is expected to last until early 2020, weather permitting.

Barrier walls have been set up on the bridge and the speed limit has been reduced. Exit and on-ramps in the area also will be closed at times.

ODOT spokeswoman Kenna Mitchell has said motorists can expect significant delays in the area, especially during peak commute times.

She said drivers should adjust their schedules or seek an alternative route, especially during commute times.

The project will also include resurfacing 2 miles of I-44 from the bridge west to near the I-244 junction (western split). That is expected to take place over several weekends and lanes will be narrowed during those times, Mitchell said.

Another concern motorists have expressed about the affected area is the highway striping — or lack of its visible presence at night — which is ODOT’s responsibility.

Mitchell said temporary striping will be put in as crews work in various areas, and permanent striping will be put in as new pavement is finished.

“People are just going to have to be patient,” she said.

The repaving work is being done on the weekends so that commuter traffic during the week is not affected by the necessary lane closures, she said.

The project will set the stage for the eventual widening of the highway between the western I-244 split and the Arkansas River bridge to six lanes, officials have said.

Construction of an entirely new, redesigned interchange at I-44 and U.S. 75 also is planned.

The first phase of the highway expansion — which will include replacing the Union Avenue and 33rd West Avenue bridges — could begin as early as next year.

I-44 in west Tulsa is the oldest section of interstate in Oklahoma, officials have said.

On average, 50,300 to 86,700 vehicles per day travel the affected section of I-44, according to 2018 ODOT traffic counts.

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Interim legislative study examines how to combat contraband cellphones in prisons

OKLAHOMA CITY — Combating the problem of contraband cellphones in prisons will require a multifaceted approach, Department of Corrections officials told state lawmakers Monday.

“Because of us not being able to jam (cellphone signals) … there’s no one thing that we’re going to do that’s going to just hit us a home run and we’re going to be 100% successful,” said Donnie Anderson, inspector general for the agency.

Corrections officials across the country have pushed for the ability to jam the signals of cellphones that are smuggled into prisons, saying it’s the best way to stop the problem, but federal law prohibits the use of such technology by state agencies. Contraband cellphones are a security threat and a public safety threat because inmates use them to commit crimes and plot violence both in and out of prison, officials have said.

Read the full story online at Oklahoman.com. (Some stories require a subscription.)