The Tulsa school board narrowly voted on Monday night to merge Gilcrease Elementary School and ECDC-Bunche, the final step in a series of moves and closures affecting McLain feeder schools.
Gilcrease and Bunche, an early childhood development center, are located next to each other at 56th Street North and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. They will close at the end of the school year and will combine into a single school serving prekindergarten through fifth grade at the Bunche building in August.
Seventeen Gilcrease teachers and advocates spoke against consolidating the two schools during the meeting, and dozens more crowded the board room to support them. Many of the speakers insisted that there was not enough time to ensure a smooth transition before the start of the 2019-20 school year, noting that rushing the process would result in unnecessary stress for students.
They also argued that it would make more sense to use the larger Gilcrease building instead of Bunche. The projected number of students at the combined school next year is 430, whereas the building capacity reportedly is 530. That puts the projected capacity at 80% and, according to opponents, leaves room for little growth.
Many took issue with alleged discrepancies about the need for consolidating, along with a lack of community input concerning the proposal and the frequent changes affecting north Tulsa schools. Others feared that a charter school would eventually move into the vacated Gilcrease building.
After listening to speakers for over an hour, board members expressed mixed emotions about the proposal.
District 3 representative Jennettie Marshall said the Gilcrease building is part of the history of the north Tulsa community, which she believes has been “habitually and historically” victimized by the district’s poor decisions.
Closing the school, Marshall said, means taking away part of a community that is “holding onto a thread as it is.”
“The community is hurting enough, and I need my colleagues on this board to hear that,” she said.
The crowd of consolidation opponents cheered as the board’s newest members, Brian Hosmer and Stacey Woolley, announced that they would vote against the proposal due to the community opposition.
The cheers escalated as longtime member Ruth Ann Fate said she agreed that the proposal should be reconsidered. Board member Jania Wester also said she was concerned about the district’s ability to provide school leaders with the tools necessary to bring the two communities together.
But when it came time to vote, only Marshall, Hosmer and Woolley voted against the measure, making it 4-3 in favor of consolidation.
Gilcrease teacher Nicole Powell, like many in the crowd, left the meeting in tears and in disbelief.
“This whole day has been really shocking,” said Powell, who has been a fierce critic of the proposal. “I was expecting them to close (Gilcrease), and then I had that glimmer of hope there at the end when Wester and Fate said that they had concerns. I really thought we were going to get it. I’m crushed.”
The distraught teacher said she and her colleagues “have no choice but to move forward and continue to do what’s best for kids.”
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist has stood behind the proposal despite the vocal opposition in the past month. She believes that the move is necessary to establish grade consistency across the McLain feeder pattern.
In February, the school board approved a community task force’s recommendation to create a unified middle school that will serve all 6th- to 8th-graders in the feeder pattern. The decision resulted in the impending closures of the McLain Seventh Grade Center, McLain Junior High and Penn Elementary School.
It also meant all applicable feeder elementary schools, including Gilcrease, will send their upcoming sixth graders to the new middle school.
By consolidating Gilcrease and Bunche, every feeder school serving elementary students will end at fifth grade. Currently, Bunche offers only pre-K and kindergarten, while Gilcrease offers first grade through sixth grade.
Gist said Bunche was chosen to house the combined school because its building was designed as an elementary school, whereas Gilcrease has a middle school design. Because the Bunche facility has undergone a recent renovation, she said, it’s a more appropriate location for young students and is the most financially responsible decision.
The superintendent also said it’s the responsibility of the district and school board to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and she said keeping both schools open with their low enrollments is not a smart use of resources.
“What we’ve heard from teachers and others is that people understand that we have a responsibility to merge these two schools, both because it’s in the best interest of children and also because it’s fiscally responsible,” she said.
A name for the new school will be decided at a later board meeting.
Also Monday, the board voted to temporarily open the vacant ECDC-Porter building at 1740 W. 41st St. to house KIPP Tulsa University Prep High School for up to two years.
KIPP Tulsa, a TPS-sponsored charter school, has been seeking another site for its new high school, which is outgrowing its current location on the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus. School officials hope to find a more permanent home within the next couple of years.
Additionally, board members approved a proposal to move Tulsa Learning Academy from the Tulsa Promenade mall to the soon-to-be closed McLain 7th Grade Academy, located at 525 E. 46th St. North.