You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Education
TPS prepares for $20 million budget cut; community engagement events will be part of the process

Tulsa Public Schools must find a way to slash $20 million from its budget for the 2020-21 school year as a result of declining enrollment and a persisting financial shortfall.

Oklahoma’s second-largest school district has designed a community engagement process to seek the public’s input this fall in how to shift investments and reduce expenses to operate within its continued fiscal constraints.

State education funding has continued to lag since 2008. The historic funding increase included in the recent state budget was not enough to offset extensive budget cuts from the past decade.

Student enrollment at TPS has declined by about 5,000 students during that time, resulting in less state funding. Enrollment helps determine the district’s share of the state aid funding formula.

In the past four years, district officials made about $22 million in budget cuts through district office reorganizations, school closures, consolidations and changes to transportation services.

“This is further exacerbated because as our enrollment revenue decreases and operating expenses increase, we’re also managing a decade of broader state education funding cuts,” TPS Chief Financial Officer Nolberto Delgadillo said. “So it’s essentially a double whammy, where state funding is not where it needs to be along with declining enrollment.”

Last school year TPS used about $4 million of its reserve funds — known as the fund balance — to close the budget gap, and it estimates that it will use $13 million to $17 million this year.

The fund balance, currently about $30 million, had not been dipped into for a decade prior to last year. It comprises the unspent money that carries forward to the next year, which serves as a safety net for financial emergencies.

In the following school year, Delgadillo said the district anticipates an annual deficit of $20 million. Because TPS can’t submit its annual budget with a negative balance, the district must find ways to cut the $20 million, which makes up 6% to 7% of its general fund.

Delgadillo said the goal in the next few months is to look at how to reduce expenses by addressing structural issues and reallocate resources to improve enrollment.

TPS plans to host a dozen community engagement events from Sept. 16 through Oct. 11 to determine what core initiatives, services and supports the public values the most. There also will be community workshops on Oct. 19, Oct. 22 and Oct. 23. Additional community events will be hosted from Oct. 20 through Dec. 16.

“We’ll identify and implement the most effective resource allocations to support those priority investments that matter most to the families we serve,” Delgadillo said.

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.

In terms of budget reduction, Delgadillo said it’s important to focus on the broader system as a whole rather than hone in on a single solution. Additional school consolidations may be considered, but they won’t get TPS close to the $20 million mark because of offsetting expenses. Other structural changes are needed, he said.

No area is off the table, although Delgadillo said the district will honor its commitment not to consolidate any more schools in north Tulsa in the near future.

District employees and community members will need to consider several tradeoffs for resource reallocation. For example, would they rather maintain classroom sizes or increase transportation routes? Would they rather pursue a highly competitive pay structure for teachers and support staff or increased professional development?

“I think by no means are we not going to be faced with hard decisions,” Delgadillo said. “All around there’s going to be hard decisions.

“I wish we were talking about, ‘We have an extra $20 million. Community, let us know how you want us to spend it.’ But that’s not the case.

“But just because there’s going to be hard decisions doesn’t mean we can’t make smart decisions.”

Superintendent Deborah Gist discussed the budget woes and need for cuts during Tuesday evening’s school board meeting and sent a detailed letter to employees on Monday outlining the district’s engagement plans this fall.

The objective of the community meetings will be to narrow in on the district’s core set of priorities to improve student experiences while regrowing enrollment, her letter states.

TPS must enact the most effective resource allocations to support those priority investments, Gist said. She added that board members will have to make “some extraordinarily difficult” decisions to ensure that the district’s future is viable, sustainable and equitable.

“While the work ahead will no doubt be challenging, we also have an exciting chance to design the best possible school system that we can for the children and families we serve,” she said. “We have a powerful opportunity to develop and implement a set of strategic investments and resource reallocations that will help us to thrive within the means that we have been given with (the) state’s investment in education.”

Gist also touched on two other areas of work the district is looking at this year. One of those is implementing a unified enrollment system in which parents need to fill out only one application during a single application period to sign up their children for school. This change resulted from public input regarding the difficulty and confusion of having multiple enrollment windows and different types of applications.

In a unified enrollment system, families reportedly would be able to choose multiple schools and rank them in order of preference. The system would launch this winter for families who are enrolling children for the 2020-21 school year.

The district also is exploring how to create consistent grade configurations at all schools, making it easier for students and families to transition through elementary, middle and high school grades. There currently are 14 grade configurations across the district.

Gist said more information about unified enrollment and grade configurations will be released over the coming months.

Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said she appreciates the additional education funding secured by legislators, who she believes are cleaning up a mess they didn’t make.

However, Mott-Wright laments that the state remains well below 2007-08 education funding levels despite Oklahoma’s having 50,000 more students now. She said schools need more resources than ever to support the growing needs of students, and she called Tulsa Public Schools’ $20 million shortfall a ripple effect caused by a decade of negligence at the state level.

Mott-Wright doesn’t like to think about forcing more budget cuts on students, but she knows this latest reduction is inevitable. She said the planned community engagement events are a crucial part of the process.

“I hope the input will be valued from the community and parents,” she said. “I’m a teacher and a parent. But I definitely hope a lot of emphasis will be put on the input from the ones who spend the most time with the kids in the classrooms.”


Local
Last 'little piece' of I-44 expansion east of Tulsa underway in earnest

The final phase of a decade-old Interstate 44 widening project on the east edge of Tulsa is underway in earnest, with crews moving large amounts of dirt.

“We’ve heard since the project started that people are excited about it because it’s that last little piece” of I-44 widening between the Interstate 244 split and Catoosa, said Oklahoma Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kenna Mitchell.

Work on I-44 widening and bridge replacement in the area has been ongoing since 2009.

The current $20 million project will widen the existing four-lane segment between 145th East Avenue and 177th East Avenue to eight lanes and improve an interchange.

“A lot of the work you see going on there now is taking place outside of the driving lanes, and it involves moving earth for some of the drainage structures,” along with embankments near the interchange ramps, Mitchell said.

Two lanes of I-44 in each direction are expected to remain open in the work zone during peak travel times, although drivers should plan for reduced speeds in the corridor, ODOT said.

Mitchell said motorists should exercise caution while driving through the area, especially during morning and evening rush hours.

“If it’s going to be one of those rush-hour times, there’s always that chance that accidents will happen because people aren’t slowing down,” she said.

“It’s a good reminder for drivers, again, to reduce speeds,” Mitchell said. “Slow down and give your full attention.”

The project will cover about a two-mile section of I-44 and, when completed, and will mark the end of an overall expansion that began 10 years ago.

Work is expected to be completed in late summer 2020, weather permitting.

The current project will tie into previous widening work on I-44 between the Interstate 244 split and 145th East Avenue and near 177th East Avenue.

The bridges at 165th East Avenue were replaced in 2010 due to their deteriorated condition. Improvements to the interchange will be made as part of the current project.

About 66,100 vehicles per day travel in the affected I-44 area, according to 2018 ODOT traffic counts.

Drivers can sign up for daily traffic advisories at odot.org by clicking on the “Sign Up For News & Alerts” link on the main page of this website and selecting the Tulsa Metro option.


Featured video

Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.

Read the story: Tulsa Police Department patrols the reading room in new program


National
Walmart to stop selling certain gun ammunition

NEW YORK — Walmart says it will discontinue the sale of handgun and short-barrel rifle ammunition and also publicly request that customers refrain from openly carrying firearms in stores even where state laws allow it.

The announcement comes just days after a mass shooting claimed seven lives in Odessa, Texas, and follows two other back-to-back shootings last month, one of them at a Walmart store.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based discounter said Tuesday that it will stop selling handgun ammunition as well as short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber used in military style weapons, after it runs out of its current inventory.

It will also discontinue handgun sales in Alaska. Walmart stopped selling handguns in the mid-1990s, with the exception of Alaska. The latest move marks its complete exit from that business and allows it to focus on hunting rifles and related ammunition only.

“In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again,” according to a memo Walmart CEO Doug McMillon circulated to employees Tuesday afternoon. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

The retailer also is asking that customers refrain from openly carrying firearms at its Walmart and Sam’s Club stores unless they are law enforcement officers. However, it said it won’t be changing its policy for customers who have permits for concealed carry. Walmart says it will be adding signage to inform customers of those changes.

Last month, a gunman entered a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people with an AK-style firearm, marking the deadliest shooting in the company’s history. Texas became an open carry state in 2016, allowing people to openly carry firearms in public.

Walmart’s moves will reduce its market share of ammunition from around 20% to a range of about 6% to 9%, according to Tuesday’s memo. About half of its more than 4,750 U.S. stores sell firearms, or around 2% of all U.S. firearms. Most firearms sales are done through thousands of unaffiliated gun shops or gun shows, not big retail chains.

A number of gun control activists praised Walmart’s moves, while gun manufacturers such as Vista Outdoors and Smith & Wesson parent company American Outdoor Brands Corp. saw their shares fall.

Other companies have responded to public pressure to restrict gun sales, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, which announced in March it would stop selling firearms and ammunition at 125 of its 700-plus locations. But supporters of stricter gun laws say Walmart’s latest steps should have an outsized influence because of its clout, sending a message to Congress as well as to other corporations.

“Walmart deserves enormous credit for joining the strong and growing majority of Americans who know that we have too many guns in our country and they are too easy to get,” said Igor Volsky, executive director and founder of Guns Down America, in a statement. “That work doesn’t end with Walmart’s decision today. As Congress comes back to consider gun violence, Walmart should make it clear that it stands with Americans who are demanding real change.”

The National Rifle Association posted a tweet attacking Walmart’s announcement.

“It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites. Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms,” it said.

The nation’s largest retailer has been facing increasing pressure to change its gun policies by gun control activists, employees and politicians after the El Paso shooting and a second unrelated shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people. A few days before that, two Walmart workers were killed by another worker at a store in Southaven, Mississippi.

In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Walmart ordered workers to remove video game signs and displays that depict violence from stores nationwide. But that fell well short of demands for the retailer to stop selling firearms entirely. Critics have also wanted Walmart to stop supporting politicians backed by the NRA.

The retailer has long found itself in an awkward spot with its customers and gun enthusiasts. Many of its stores are in rural areas where hunters depend on Walmart to get their equipment. Walmart is trying to walk a fine line by trying to embrace its hunting heritage while being a more responsible retailer.

With its new policy on “open carry,” McMillon noted in his memo that individuals have tried to make a statement by carrying weapons into its stores just to frighten workers and customers. But there are well-intentioned customers acting lawfully who have also inadvertently caused a store to be evacuated and local law enforcement to be called to respond.

Walmart joins a string of other retailers and restaurants including Starbucks, Target and Wendy’s in asking customers not to openly carry when they visit their premises. But they are not enforcing a ban because they don’t want to put their employees in confrontational situations.

Walmart says it hopes to help other retailers by sharing its best practices like software that it uses for background checks. And the company, which in 2015 stopped selling assault rifles like the AR-rifles used in several mass shootings, urged more debate on the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban while also calling for the government to strengthen background checks. McMillon says Walmart will send letters to the White House and congressional leadership that calls for action on these “common sense” measures.

Over the last 15 years, Walmart had expanded beyond its hunting and fishing roots, carrying items like assault rifles in response to increasing demand. But particularly since 2015, often coinciding with major public mass shootings, the company has made moves to curb the sale of ammunition and guns.

Walmart announced in February 2018 that it would no longer sell firearms and ammunition to people younger than 21 and also removed items resembling assault-style rifles from its website. Those moves were prompted by the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

In 2015, Walmart stopped selling semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 style rifle, the type used in the Dayton shooting. The retailer also doesn’t sell large-capacity magazines. Dick’s Sporting Good stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2018.


Featured video

Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.

Read the story: Tulsa Police Department patrols the reading room in new program


News
Signatures expected to be counted on referendum to repeal state gun law

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday said it will soon begin counting the signatures on a referendum seeking to let voters repeal permitless carry.

The office had previously said it would not begin the count until the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined the fate of a legal challenge to the effort.

“We are going to perform our normal count like we do on all of the questions,” said Amy Canton, director of the Executive and Legal Division for the Secretary of State’s Office.

She said it should not take long to perform the signature count and that the office “should have some number next week.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court in an order released Friday asked respondents to provide the number of signatures, “if known.” It also gave respondents until 5 p.m. Thursday to respond to the challenge.

Supporters of State Question 803 turned in their signatures by last week’s deadline but were uncertain if they had enough to get the measure on the statewide ballot.

Approximately 59,320 signatures were required to get a vote in 2020. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and other groups spent time gathering signatures across the state.

Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, is one of three proponents of the referendum. He said Tuesday that he was uncertain how many signatures had been collected.

Shortly before the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline, he said about 50,000 had been obtained, but more came in as the deadline neared.

Lawmakers last session passed House Bill 2597 that would let individuals carry a weapon without a permit or training. The legislation was signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt and takes effect Nov. 1. Oklahoma already has an open carry law.

HB 2597 was supported by the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, of which Don Spencer is president.

His organization is among those that filed the protest with the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“Since they misrepresented what the law said in their referendum, I am sure the circulators most likely misrepresented the amount of signatures,” Spencer said. “We feel it is good that the secretary of state is going ahead and getting the rough count so this can be determined and this whole situation can be ended as soon as possible and law abiding citizens will be able to enjoy their rights on Nov. 1.”


Featured video

Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.

Read the story: Tulsa Police Department patrols the reading room in new program