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'This baby is getting wild': Cry Baby Hill marks another rambunctious year

There’s never been anything normal about it, that much is certain, and Sunday morning at Cry Baby Hill wasn’t going to be any different.

If anything, with its most absurd costume theme in a long line of absurd costume themes for the annual party-on-a-hill on the final day of the Saint Francis Tulsa Tough, it was going to be even weirder.

By 10:30 a.m., the sidewalks of 13th Street were lined with men clad in crop-tops and low-cut jean shorts. Many of the women standing alongside them covered only what they absolutely had to. Live music blared out of the speakers from a nearby stage as hundreds of partiers strolled toward yard parties in the residential neighborhood that is relatively quiet the other 364 days of the year.

As riders whizzed by in one of the day’s dozen criterium races, man clad in a bikini top sipped from a baby doll repurposed as a drinking cup.

Others wearing wrestling singlets knocked back Jell-O shots as a passerby wheeled a bar cart equipped to last the day and then some.

“This is very much so our white trash Mardi Gras,” an onlooker at the spectacle within the spectacle remarked.

Sunday marked the final day of Tulsa Tough’s 14th year, and thus year 14 for Cry Baby Hill, the annual cycling weekend’s rambunctious, booze-filled crown jewel that powers riders through the most grueling stretch of Sunday’s River Parks Criterium.

As Tulsa Tough itself has blossomed into one of the nation’s premier cycling events since its inception in 2006, so has the annual party that welcomes aching racers.

The party started out with fewer than 30 people, and each year the celebration has featured themes, each more outrageous than the last.

This year the same organizers who in the past delivered hits such as “Cry Baby Hell,” selected puberty and the fierce, infectious crowd grabbed right onto it, taking the weird at Cry Baby Hill to a whole new level, symbolically launching the festival from preadolescence into the teenage years.

“This baby is getting wild and raucous,” Head emCee Josh “Squirrel” Gifford said. “It’s a teenager now and it’s only going to get crazier and weirder from here.”

So what exactly does a theme so out there as puberty look like? The best way to find out is to take a walk up 13th street.

The turn at the corner of Lawton Avenue and 13th Street is abrupt, both in its severity for riders and the view that lies beyond.

There’s hair — lots of it — some real and some artificial. Sex toys adorn decorative helmets and those without tattoos or piercings are more the exception than they are the rule.

Further up, at the street’s intersection with Jackson Avenue, a man wearing a straw hat and a kimono blows into a novelty trumpet as a beer bong falls to the ground next to him.

Across the street, a group dressed as cheerleaders urges riders on, each with a pom pom in one hand and an occupied koozie in the other.

The sea of characters continues all the way to the slope that riders fly down all day long, yet even among the wild and crazy, Smidge Isgrig stands out.

Isgrig, a Tulsa native, opted to follow this year’s alternate theme, “Guy-baby Hill” in the guise of celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Her hair is dyed blonde and spiked, and she sports a drawn-on goatee to compliment her fire-print shirt.

Underneath it all, she’s wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a man’s body printed on it.

Isgrig represents the 1% of the 1% of the most dedicated Cry Baby Hill fans. It’s a group she’s proud to be a part of.

The crowd that convenes at Cry Baby Hill each year is made up of many types and characters. There are casual racers and hardcore cyclists. There are hipsters and self-proclaimed “weirdos,” too. Some just come to dress up and enjoy the party.

“It’s a really diverse crowd up here and we like that,” Isgrig said. “If you’re weird, we like you.”

To the organizers and true faithful the diverse group, which continues to grow in scope each year, is a point of pride.

“If there’s one thing we love it’s our city, so if you love Tulsa we want you here” Edward Snow, a Cry Baby Hill referee, said Sunday. “It’s such a showcase for our city and we want people to know how awesome it is.”

“The real theme of this whole event is tolerance, and against the backdrop all that’s going on in this country, this is awesome. It shows that we can all get along with each other and have a great time.”

Hours before he’s set to race in the final race of the Men’s Pro category, an event he enters as the leader in the weekend, Justin Williams gazes out at the part unfolding in front of him.

Cry Baby Hill is not new to the defending back-to-back Road and Criterium National Champion. Williams has ridden through the deafening crowd hundreds of times before and is preparing himself to do it again later in the day. Tulsa has become a favorite stop for the Los Angeles-product on the annual racing circuit, and after missing out on the event in 2018, he’s happy to be back.

As Williams look out upon the frenzied crowd, he relishes in the excitement and the peculiar characters in front him and wonders what it might be like if other cycling events around the nation could replicate it.

In his view, the world of cycling could use a few more Cry Baby Hills.

“Those no other place like this in the country. They turn this whole thing into a block party,” Williams said. “This is what Criterium racing should be and if we can get more races to embrace cycling like they embrace it here, it’ll take cycling across the world to another level.”

Other celebrations like Cry Baby Hill May soon follow and would certainly affect the sport of cycling for the better, but for now the only place to find a party like this one is on the second Sunday in June here in Tulsa.

The party is big and it’s loud, and the party is most certainly weird.

But the party is also filled with people from all different backgrounds who come together once a year, decked out in costumes, and do it all – whatever it is – together.

As Isgrig stares out at the crowd from her perch, she marvels at what is undoubtedly the craziest Cry Baby Hill theme and takes comfort in the scene in front of her.

Tulsa’s biggest annual party entered puberty Sunday. And Cry Baby Hill, another year into being a teenager, is as wild and out there as ever.

“We’re definitely different,” she said. “But I’ve never found a community like the one we have here.”


Education
After years of debilitating teacher shortages, some districts are seeing progress in hiring, retention

Many Tulsa-area school districts hope improvements in employee recruitment and retention are pointing toward a light at the end of the tunnel for Oklahoma’s chronic teacher shortage.

Education officials credit recent state-funded teacher pay raises as a primary reason for why it’s suddenly become much easier to staff their schools for the coming year.

Union Public Schools has filled almost 75% of its total positions for 2019-20. That’s a stark contrast from previous years when the district was lucky to fill 20-30% of positions by the start of summer, said Jay Loegering, executive director of human resources.

“It’s been a good start to the year,” Loegering said. “We’ve never been this full going into the summer by any means.”

Like other districts, Union has suffered from a lack of applications for vacant positions as well as a high turnover rate. An overwhelming number of teachers fled to neighboring states for better pay or left the education industry in general.

But the $1,220 teacher pay raise included in the new state budget on top of the minimum $5,000 raise approved in 2018 will, according to Gov. Kevin Stitt, put Oklahoma in first-place for the region.

Further, Union also produced an additional 5.25% teacher pay raise through conservative budgeting.

The overall salary increase has given Union a competitive edge in recruiting. Teachers are no longer leaving because of low pay, Loegering said, and a few who left for higher-paying jobs in Arkansas have expressed interest in returning.

Union also has been able to retain some employees who were planning to retire because the raises will improve their retirement pay.

Although there still are plenty of educators leaving the profession, Loegering said the teacher shortage is slowing down.

Tulsa Public Schools also has experienced fewer resignations and retirements than last year so far. The district loses about 500-600 teachers every year, but officials have said they expected that number to drop to roughly 300 this school year due to the pay increase.

They won’t have an exact number until after the approaching deadlines for teachers to submit their contracts and let the district know whether they plan to return.

“I would say that based on the number of resignations we’ve received to date and the projection moving forward, it seems that (the teacher shortage) is slowing down,” said Quentin Liggins, director of talent initiatives at TPS. “But we will know fully within a couple of weeks what people’s intentions are to return to the district as we receive their contract information back.”

Broken Arrow Public Schools has filled about 77% of its teacher openings for next year, which chief administrative officer Lori Kerns said is significantly higher than in 2017-18.

A recent career fair attracted more than 180 prospective teachers. Most were hired by the district, Kerns said. She’s confident Broken Arrow will start the school year with all positions filled in every area except special education, which continues to be an area of need across the state.

“There just seems to be a lot more excitement in the air overall for next year for the teaching profession as a whole,” she said.

Owasso Public Schools Superintendent Amy Fichtner has seen similar results, with 14 teaching positions still needing to be filled. That’s after adding 11 elementary positions in an effort to reduce class size.

Fichtner agreed there’s a renewed optimism surrounding the hiring process and believes the increased compensation from the state level enhances the district’s longstanding efforts of investing in the classroom to keep teachers happy.

However, she stressed that the district still is grappling with the symptoms of the shortage.

“The reason I know we’re still dealing with a shortage is the number of applicants for each vacancy,” Fichtner said. “For example, 15 years ago there would have been no shortage of applicants. But I would say it’s better.”

Some of the improvements reported by other districts have not been as evident at Jenks Public Schools.

The district has hired more than 50% of the teachers needed for 2019-20 — a slight improvement from the same time last year. Similar to Owasso, Jenks added 16 certified teaching positions to keep classroom sizes under control.

Dana Ezell, executive director of human resources at Jenks Public Schools, said there hasn’t been any relief in lowering the retirement rate.

“We had hoped that the salary increase might slow some of the retirements, but we’re still seeing about the same number,” Ezell said.

And in addition to experiencing the same difficulties in finding special education teachers, this year the district is struggling to hire elementary teachers. This issue has been especially surprising because it’s not something Jenks typically struggled with in the past.

Although Ezell said the district has not started seeing a dramatic change this year, she’s optimistic about real results coming in the near future.

“We are hopeful that steps being taken will encourage more individuals to pursue a degree in education,” she said. “We know this won’t be a quick fix, but we are encouraged by the changes we are seeing.”


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Government-and-politics
Who missed the most votes during the legislative session?

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers cited a number of factors that caused them to be among those who missed the most votes in a session that ended last month.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, led the upper chamber in missed votes. He missed 62.93% of the votes in the session that began Feb. 4 and ended May 23.

The missed votes were tabulated by eCapitol, a subscription-based legislative news and bill tracking service.

The vote totals compiled by eCapitol include votes cast in committees. Depending on committee assignments, the total number of votes individual lawmakers could have participated in ranged from about 900 to more that 1,300 for some House members and senators.

“A huge part of leading the Senate requires me to be in meetings during the session with the governor, speaker and others,” Treat said.

He said that although the House speaker is able to vote when not on the floor, the Senate President Pro Tem can’t due to the upper chamber’s rules.

Sen. Joseph Silk, R-Broken Bow, missed 34.81% of the votes.

Silk was the author of Senate Bill 13, which sought to make abortion murder. The bill did not get a hearing but drew crowds to the Capitol, including Free the States, which seeks to abolish abortion.

“I had a lot of events this year, more than normal statewide, and also in the district,” Silk said. Some of those events were related to the abolition movement, he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, came in third, missing 25.23% of the votes.

Thompson said his role working on the state budget resulted in his missing votes.

“I didn’t miss any days at the Legislature,” Thompson said.

Sen. Jason Smalley, R-Stroud, ranked fourth in missed Senate votes with 20.41%.

“Due to my position as chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and my relationship with the leadership of the House of Representatives, I was absent for various votes to negotiate specific legislation,” Smalley said.

Smalley said his duties as chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee also required numerous meetings in addition to the constituents who visited his office.

“I reserve the right to miss some votes as I felt certain issues and the needs of my constituents are a priority,” Smalley said.

Sen. Frank Simpson ranked fifth, missing 19.60% of the votes. Simpson said he missed votes to care for his wife, who later passed away.

Freshman Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca City, had the best voting record, only missing one vote.

“It seemed to me that is what I was elected for — to go there and make the votes,” he said.

House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, led the lower chamber in missed votes. He missed 33.13% of the votes.

Wallace said he was present for every day of session. He said he had a ton of meetings and also dealt with constituent issues.

Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, missed 28.8% of the votes.

Pittman said the Capitol is in her district. She said she had a high volume of constituents who visited her office.

Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, said he missed 27.11% of the votes as the result of meetings to work on legislation, especially criminal justice reform.

“I certainly made sure that on major pieces of policy I was there and present and accounted for in voting,” he said. “I didn’t miss a day all session.”

Rep. Denise Brewer, D-Tulsa, ranked fourth, missing 26.9%. She said she missed only a few votes until having surgery on May 13.

Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, missed 26.16% of the votes.

Meredith said he missed a couple of days during deadline week and missed votes while attending his son’s livestock show.

In addition, he was responsible for putting together the budget for the House Democrats and meeting with constituents, which he said also took him away from votes.

Freshman Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader, R-Piedmont, had the best voting record in the House, missing only 12 votes.

“That is what I got hired to do,” she said. “That is where the rubber meets the road.”


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Actor Jason Lee talks about his new photo exhibit that is being shown at the same time as photos from Larry Clark's iconic photo book "Tulsa."

Read the story: Larry Clark, Jason Lee exhibits show Oklahoma from inside, outside