Tulsa Public Schools employee Kelli DeShone walked into the bustling cafeteria of Booker T. Washington High School on Thursday evening with one question in mind: What’s next?
More than 100 people gathered there for the district’s third of 11 planned community engagement meetings in which stakeholders share their thoughts about how to eliminate $20 million from the 2020-21 budget.
DeShone, a custodian at Wright Elementary School, showed up at Thursday’s meeting with a heightened sense of dread after more than a decade of watching classrooms grow and resources shrink.
“We get certain departments cut back every year, even where I feel like we really can’t afford to be cut back,” said DeShone, who has worked at TPS since 2005. “It happens all over the district. They don’t discriminate at all. So I just want to know what’s getting cut this time. It’s kind of a fear.”
TPS blames the budgetary shortfall on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts to education.
Oklahoma slashed more per-pupil funding than any other state from 2008 to 2018. TPS saw an enrollment loss of 5,000 students during that time, lessening its share of the state aid through the funding formula. The district projected a revenue loss of about $15 million from 2018-19 through the current school year.
Superintendent Deborah Gist cited other contributing factors, as well, such as the small size and low capacity of some of the city’s school buildings. She also said TPS is far more spread out than many other districts, which significantly increases transportation costs.
Additionally, the district serves a lot of children with significant needs. Gist said 83% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and she pointed to research showing that Oklahoma leads the nation in childhood trauma.
“Our children have a lot of need, and it means that our system has to function differently than some of our neighboring districts,” she said.
TPS officials 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. They expect to run out of that reserve money by next year, giving way to next year’s anticipated $20 million deficit.
Now they must find a way to slash about 7% of their budget. The community engagement meetings are meant to help determine where funding should be reduced based on public feedback.
Ashley Powell, a prekindergarten teacher at Owen Elementary School, said she’s concerned that the coming budget cuts will be made at the school level.
“We’ve cut a lot from the service center,” Powell said. “We’ve cut a lot of higher-paying positions. Now it’s really going to be where the students start feeling the hurt the most, and that’s what worries me. What essential parts of our school are we going to be cutting?”
Her school already has experienced the consequences of less funding. A drop in enrollment at Owen and subsequent loss of allocation resulted in the elimination of its music program this year, Powell said. She’s afraid the library or the art program could be next.
During Thursday’s meeting, participants were asked to separate into groups and discuss their concerns about the district’s budget redesign effort, in addition to investments they value most and areas where officials could save money.
If there have to be reductions, then Powell said she believes they should happen at the district office, which she considers still top-heavy. She suggested potentially eliminating the instructional leadership director positions as well as some of the teacher coaches and mentors.
Although Powell said she hates to see anybody get cut, she stressed that schools don’t have any staff to lose.
“As much as I understand those people need a job, as well, the least amount of effect directly to the students would be for the best,” she said.
Cassandra Love, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Booker T. Washington, said she appreciates the district’s transparency and commitment to seeking the public’s help in solving the budget crisis.
But there’s no easy answer, Love said. Something has to give to keep TPS afloat next year. That’s why she believes it’s crucial to work together and mitigate the fallout for students.
“I just don’t want anyone left behind,” she said. “I don’t want to see funds not evenly dispersed. You want to see all kids get their just due. No matter if they’re from Booker T., no matter if they’re from Central or Webster or Hale or wherever, you want to see all kids get the best education they can receive.”
Following the final community engagement meeting on Oct. 10, the district 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 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.