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'It's just such a beautiful day': Mayor Bynum leads celebration of 918 Day with whirlwind 24-hour city tour

Jennifer Levan had the perfect story to share on 918 Day. And the perfect person with whom to share it.

Mayor G.T. Bynum met Levan on Wednesday morning as she and other participants in the city’s A Better Way program picked up trash at McClure Park.

The public/private endeavor gives panhandlers an opportunity to work for a day in exchange for a cash payment. But the larger goal is to get people off the streets, into jobs and on to self-sufficiency.

Levan told Bynum she will soon begin a job with Mental Health Association Oklahoma.

“If I wouldn’t have come here that one time, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. “But it’s all due to this program.”

The encounter was one of several emotional ones for the mayor Wednesday morning.

“This just makes me so proud of our city,” Bynum said of the A Better Way program.

The Mayor’s Office initiated 918 Day last year to highlight the people, places and businesses that make the city special. The mayor takes it seriously, spending the entire day — all 24 hours — engaging the community.

He made more than 30 stops Wednesday, beginning his journey with a midnight tour of Spirit AeroSystems, a Wichita-based aerospace manufacturing company near Tulsa International Airport, and ending it at the Tulsa World, where he loaded papers onto trucks.

After touring Bama Foods early Wednesday morning, he took a box of biscuits to Tulsa’s 911 center to show his appreciation for those who work a job he described as one of the most stressful.

On Wednesday night, near the conclusion of his 24-hour tour, Bynum donned bunker gear — about 60 pounds of fire retardant gear — intending to go into a burning room with Tulsa firefighters.

He and City Council Chair Phil Lakin joined firefighters at their training center in north Tulsa, where they suited up in firefighter bunker gear. They came to experience a simulation of a flashover. A flashover is the ignition of combustibles, almost simultaneously, in a room.

However, Bynum reportedly was called away on business.

“I think that we have the best fire department in the country, and one of the reasons for that is the training regimen we have for our firefighters,” Bynum said before leaving.

After a lunch hour tour of the Woody Guthrie Center in the Arts District, the mayor said: “I think we’ve done a good job this year of mixing some things that are just really cool experiences, like going to Bama. Seeing them making 2½ million biscuits a day, that was incredible.”

As was his first visit to the historic Vernon AME Church in the Greenwood District.

“That was powerful, too. I always thought the brick structure was part of what had survived the ’21 (Race Massacre),” Bynum said. “But to find out that all of that is from ’25, (and) the only thing literally (to survive) was the basement, that’s incredible.”

918 Day is about more than the mayor taking a tour of the city. It is becoming a communitywide event.

One hundred teams registered for this year’s 918 Day Scavenger Hunt, which took place Saturday, up from 68 last year. The number of businesses offering discounts Wednesday nearly doubled from last year, to 43, and for the first time, there were community events, including a comedy show at H.A. Chapman Centennial Green.

Laura Reeder, 33, said she spent a few minutes Wednesday morning checking to see what businesses might be offering 918 Day discounts. The deals are just one reason she loves the annual celebration.

“I love the idea of people coming together on one particular day to celebrate where they are from,” she said while grabbing lunch at Guthrie Green. “I love the idea of the mayor going around and knowing more about the town he’s over.”

Amy Lee, 34, also spent her lunch hour at Guthrie Green. The Tulsa native, who just moved back from Texas, said she loves Guthrie Green, so that is where she wanted to spend a part of 918 Day.

“There’s so much more, like, Tulsa pride,” she said. “I love it.”

That, of course, is what 918 Day is all about: a chance, if you will, to ring the bell for the city you call home.

That was why, perhaps, Bynum — a life-long Tulsan with deep family ties to the city — got a little emotional early Wednesday morning as he flew over the city in a Tulsa Police Department helicopter.

“Seeing the sun rise over the city and everybody waking up and going to work and getting out into the day, it’s just such a beautiful day,” he said.

Kelsy Schlotthauer contributed to this story.

Epic Charter Schools sends state senator 'cease and desist demand' letter

An attorney for Epic Charter Schools issued a “cease and desist demand” letter to a state senator who has been raising questions about the legality of the school’s student attendance practices.

The move by the state’s largest virtual charter school against Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, comes one week after Epic called for an investigation of Sharp by Oklahoma Senate leadership — a request that went nowhere.

“You are hereby put on notice to CEASE AND DESIST ALL DEFAMATION OF EPIC, ITS STAFF AND FALSE ACCUSATIONS RELATED TO THE SCHOOL,” Epic attorney William Hickman wrote to Sharp in a letter dated Tuesday, also putting that capitalized passage in bold type.

“Epic has learned that you have engaged in publishing, disseminating or otherwise promoting false, destructive, defamatory, and baseless allegations about the School. Your allegations are baseless and without merit. Under Oklahoma law, it is unlawful to defame another by libel or slander.”

Hickman gave Sharp seven days to agree to “cease and desist” and publish a retraction of his statements or face “immediate legal action” by Epic.

“Epic serves nearly 1,500 students in your senate district, which represents thousands of families and friends,” Hickman wrote to Sharp in closing.

Sharp released Hickman’s letter to the media on Wednesday.

“It is troubling that a public school receiving public money does not understand that every penny of tax payer dollars is subject to scrutiny. There are no protections available from this oversight,” Sharp said in a statement to the Tulsa World. “If it can be explained, the use of tax dollars is permissible by statute. If such use of tax dollars cannot be properly accounted for, there are questions to be asked.”

The school has accused Sharp of defamation of the school and “intentional misrepresentation of legal guidance given to him by two state agencies.”

In a news release issued Sept. 10, Epic vowed to request an investigation by Oklahoma Senate leadership into the propriety of Sharp’s using Senate staff to issue news releases the school believes to be defamatory.

But a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said at the time: “The Senate has no plans for an investigation at this time.”

In mid-July, Sharp issued the first in a series of news releases questioning how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the previous two years for 3,000 to 4,000 students in middle and high school when the Epic Blended Learning Centers in which they were enrolled could be attended only by students in early education and elementary school grades.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has an ongoing probe into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses, racketeering and forgery at Epic.

And as the Tulsa World previously reported, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also been investigating Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances for the past several years.

In response to the law enforcement investigations, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.

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Councilor criticizes city's handling of golf course appraisals

The city’s failure to disclose that it is getting appraisals on two of its golf courses with an eye on possibly selling them is the kind of activity that leads people to be suspicious of government, a Tulsa city councilor said Tuesday.

“For the citizens and the people we’re talking with, this type of stuff that is found out later on is one of the reasons why people don’t trust government (with) being forthright with information,” said Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper.

The Tulsa World reported Tuesday that the city of Tulsa has hired a private firm to appraise the Olde Page and Stone Creek courses at Page Belcher Golf Course, 6666 S Union Ave. Tulsa Parks and Recreation Director Anna America said the city’s ideal scenario would be to sell the properties to an entity that would keep them as public courses and would have the financial wherewithal to improve them.

America stressed that the properties would not be sold for a commercial development, such as housing. She did acknowledge, however, that one proposal presented to the city called for developing the golf course property south of 71st Street to fund improvements to the golf course property north of 71st Street.

Hall-Harper, whose district includes the city-owned Mohawk Park golf courses, noted that city officials made no mention of the appraisals when they held a public meeting on the future of the city’s golf courses in early August. Nor has it been brought to city’s councilors’ attention since, she said.

“I don’t know what the hell is going on with that,” she said. “We were having conversations about how we move forward to address the problem with the golf courses and saving the golf courses, so it is a bit of a surprise — a total surprise — that they requested, or are requesting, appraisals.”

Councilor Jeannie Cue, whose district includes the Page Belcher courses, said she, also, had been unaware of the appraisals.

“This has not been discussed at all, that they need an appraisal or were even thinking about an appraisal,” she said. “We were trying to work to just make our golf courses better.”

Cue said she would not support selling the golf courses.

“I support the people that golf,” she said. “Everyone can’t belong to a country club. … We (the city) need to look at finding money.”

Hall-Harper said the city’s decision to have appraisals done on the golf courses indicates that there is “at least a consideration or thought” of selling the property.

“And that is not what we have been talking about or even discussing,” she said.

City officials initially declined to comment or provide details on the appraisals. Wednesday afternoon, however, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he understood why councilors would be upset to learn of the appraisals in the news.

“I never liked being surprised by news stories when I was on the (City) Council,” Bynum said. “That’s on us for not realizing that a routine data collection process could lead to a surprise for the council.

“But that’s what this is: a way for us to make informed decisions with my colleagues on the council about how we create the best golfing experience possible at our courses. We can’t make informed decisions without collecting relevant information.”

The city has four 18-hole courses — Olde Page and Stone Creek at Page Belcher and two at Mohawk Park Golf Course, 5223 E. 41st St. North.

Billy Casper Golf has operated the city’s golf courses since 2008. In fiscal year 2019, which ended in June, 95,601 rounds were played on the four courses, generating revenues of $2,387,452, according to Billy Casper Golf. During that same time, the city subsidized the courses to the tune of $98,871, while the golf courses generated $87,142 in sales tax revenue, according to the company.

America, Cue and Hall-Harper were among the city officials who met with golfers at Olde Page in early August to discuss the future of the city’s golf courses. They made no promise of additional funding but did encourage golfers to consider creating a private golfing committee to help raise money for the courses.

Councilor Cass Fahler said many of his constituents play on the Olde Page and Stone Creek courses and that he, also, was unaware of the appraisals.

After doing some research on the matter, he’s come to understand why the city wants to know what the courses are worth, Fahler said.

“I presume that they are not intending to sell,” Fahler said. “I think someone had put that in writing, and I don’t see that.

“But I do know that this gives us a good ability to really find out what we are working with and can transition these into possibly a public/private partnership.”

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Superintendent optimistic that Tulsa Public Schools will overcome $20 million budget hole

Addressing a room full of concerned community members and teachers at Hale High School, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist made clear that she understands the serious nature of her district’s financial crisis.

Wednesday marked the second of 11 planned community engagement meetings to collect public input about how to slash $20 million from next school year’s budget. Gist opened the two-hour discussion by acknowledging the gravity of the situation and its emotional toll on decision-makers, but she said she’s confident that the district will overcome.

“I am optimistic that we’re going to get through this together,” Gist said. “I know we are because we have to, and you guys are Tulsans, and that’s how we do things. But please know that we are appropriately daunted by the magnitude of this task.

“And we also are very somber about what we’re doing right now because we know that the choices we have before us are all not good. We wish we were having a conversation about reinvestment, and perhaps we’ll be able to have that conversation someday soon.”

The district’s anticipated $20 million budget shortfall is the result of declining enrollment and a decade of education cuts at the state level.

Officials already have made reductions of $22 million since 2015, largely through school closures and consolidations, district office reorganizations and changes to transportation services. Last year they dipped into the fund balance for the first time in a decade, and they expect to run out of the reserve money by next year. The fund balance is any surplus money that carries over from one year to the next.

The first meeting was at Webster High School on Tuesday. Both discussions drew more than 100 concerned community members and school district employees.

At Wednesday’s meeting, community members and district employees were asked to divide into groups and discuss three key themes. The first centered on reflections about the district’s future. Participants shared their concerns about the budget redesign effort and their hopes for public schools.

Parent Kelly Jean Peterson worries that another round of cuts will push more middle-class families to suburban school districts, shrinking Tulsa’s enrollment even further. She said it’s crucial that AP courses for high-schoolers are left intact, as well as supports for students from kindergarten through second grade.

“If you think about it,” Peterson said, “how many students are being home-schooled or are going to online learning because they didn’t feel like they were getting a more rigorous and a more personalized atmosphere at the school that they go to? That is the question. What is it about Tulsa Public Schools that is enticing to families and makes them want to stay here?”

Her hope is that the kind of cuts that have to be made won’t affect vulnerable students as well as those who are most likely to grow up to be educators.

The second key theme involved identifying which investments stakeholders value the most. The district’s ultimate goal for these meetings is to make the best investments possible based on insights from the community.

Walter Williams, who teaches special education at Hale and coaches track and cross country, came to the meeting to see whether his position is at risk of being cut. Williams said special education is essential to thousands of vulnerable children and should be preserved at all costs.

“I work with kids with severe multiple disabilities,” he said. “Seeing anybody cut from that department concerns me because more than anything, those children need the support. The state says they have to be in school. If they have to be here, why cut from that area?”

Additionally, Williams thinks athletics should be protected because sports motivate students to perform well in school if they want to stay eligible. They also provide mentors for at-risk kids and keep them out of trouble.

Parent Michelle Schatz has no idea which areas will see reductions, but she hopes art and music programs aren’t among them. She also agrees that special education and athletics should be left off the chopping block, adding that they are intrinsic to numerous students facing a variety of needs.

“And you need the counselors,” Schatz said. “For God’s sake, we’ve got to have the counselors to help these kids deal with the emotional issues and the traumas that they’re going through, because they don’t all have great home lives. They don’t all have the parents here who are advocating for them.”

Ultimately, Schatz fears what kind of impact a $20 million budget cut will have on the district. She said Tulsa needs a good, functioning education system to attract businesses and become a thriving city.

For the third theme, participants analyzed opportunities to develop a savings plan for the 2020-21 school year. They were provided lists with around 20 options for saving money, such as through reducing central office services or campus police, increasing class sizes and eliminating transportation services except where required by law. Other options included reducing the number of teachers and support staff in schools and making changes to “ensure (the) best use of buildings and operational costs.”

The assignment proved challenging, especially for teachers who will experience the consequences of these reductions directly.

When asked which area she was most comfortable with cutting, Kirsten Johnson reluctantly responded with athletic programs. Johnson, who teaches at Hale Junior High, said she was least comfortable with increasing classroom sizes and eliminating arts.

“I think money always goes to athletics. It’s the first thing people want to fund,” Johnson said. “At my school there was an email that went out saying all teachers should go out to one of the games this weekend. There were like 20 of them. But really selfishly, I thought it would be great if they sent that out for choir concerts.”

Robert Yadon, another teacher at Hale Junior High, named the central office as his choice for what to cut.

As someone whose prior administrative position was eliminated due to funding, Yadon said he wonders whether additional areas in the central office can be tapped into to save money. It’s not a satisfying answer, he noted, but he doesn’t want to see cuts within the schools.

Following the final community engagement meeting on Oct. 10, TPS will host a series of working sessions with key stakeholders in October and November to dive into the input collected from the meetings and a web-based survey that launches later this month.

Four additional community feedback events are planned for Dec. 9-13. District officials hope to present a modified budget and recommendations to the school board by Dec. 16. The new budget would be implemented in 2020-21.

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