Tulsa Public Schools administrators intend to recommend a major reorganization of the district’s Indian Education Program as part of an upcoming proposal to reduce district office services.
All seven resource advisers within the Indian Education Program received letters last week notifying them of Superintendent Deborah Gist’s proposal to eliminate their positions. They’re among 84 district office employees whose positions will be considered for elimination during a special board meeting in mid-February.
The letters say the recommendation does not reflect the quality of the affected employees’ performance or value to the district. Rather, it’s “based solely on the financial situation of the district,” the letters say.
The potential reduction in force is part of the superintendent’s Shaping Our Future plan, which requires slashing about $20 million from the 2020-21 budget to avoid a deficit. Board members on Tuesday approved other elements of the plan involving closing four elementary schools and increasing classroom sizes to save a combined $5 million to $6 million.
The majority of the potential budget cuts — approximately $14 million — center on reductions to the district office, which include all employees who work outside the schools. A board vote on this recommendation was delayed a month because of employees’ due process rights, and officials have withheld information about which positions are being cut.
But some affected employees in the TPS Indian Education Program have been vocal about potentially losing their jobs and are questioning the intent of the eliminations.
Resource adviser Trygve Jorgensen told the Tulsa World that because his position is federally funded, he was confused by his notification letter’s explanation that eliminating his position is a cost-saving measure.
The Indian Education Program receives funding through two federal grants, Title VI and Johnson O’Malley, which are meant to provide educational services and supplemental programs to students with Native American heritage.
Jorgensen and at least two of his colleagues say they believe their positions are being targeted in retaliation for multiple complaints made regarding the program’s management. He accuses the district of trying to create a “hostile work environment.”
“(TPS) isn’t saving any money,” he said. “They’re using this as a smokescreen because of the amount of grievances that we filed.”
Jorgensen and five other employees sent their latest grievance to Gist in a 13-page document on Dec. 13. The report alleges that the Indian education manager position was created illegally when it replaced the coordinator position in 2018 and does not align with Title VI requirements. Further, the complainants argued that a nearly $24,000 raise increasing the manager’s annual salary to $89,619 was not done with the consent of the Indian Affairs Committee.
The grievance also includes other allegations of mismanagement and discriminatory behavior.
Gist responded to Jorgensen on Jan. 15, the same day he was notified of his position’s potential elimination, and told him she couldn’t process the complaint because it violated grievance procedures. She said a review determined that it was invalid because the concerns were raised more than 10 days after they were known or should have been known.
However, Gist said many of the issues have been reviewed, addressed and appealed in other capacities over the past few months.
Jorgensen since has filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is asking board members to delay voting on personnel reductions until his “due process” is complete.
TPS Chief Talent and Learning Officer Devin Fletcher said the manager position — which would be retained under the plan — received the raise due to increased district and community responsibilities and leadership duties. The state-mandated pay raises also contributed to the significant salary boost.
District officials deny that the intended recommendations are retaliatory. Fletcher said the program reorganization is designed to maximize opportunities and services for Native students and their families.
The seven resource advisers would be replaced by three student specialist positions that can provide expanded year-round services for students, Fletcher said. The reorganization also would create a customer care association position for Indian education and would increase to eight from four the number of teacher assistants providing academic and cultural supports to native students.
Further, Fletcher said Title VI — which funds the Indian education positions — does not cover all of the central office support services for the program due to a decline of more than 600 eligible students over the past seven years.
“As we are funded on a per-pupil basis in this grant based on eligible student number(s), which is decreasing, our grant funding allocations are decreasing,” he said. “At the same time our salary and benefits costs have increased over $100,000 in the past two years due to legislation passed by the Oklahoma state Legislature to increase certified staff compensation.”
Jorgensen said the seven current resource advisers already face heavy workloads and questions how the proposed student specialists positions could handle those responsibilities.
"How are three going to make up what seven is doing?" he said.
Another resource adviser, Shari Williams, said the district’s cost-saving explanation doesn’t make sense because the district will fund the newly proposed positions.
“Why is it that they’re not going to be able to carry our program as is but they’re going to be able to carry the new program if the board approves it?” Williams asked. “They’re still going to be paying people. They’re still going to be spending money.”
Erin Parker, the program’s newest resource adviser, said she felt betrayed by the proposal, and she also accused the district of retaliating against the employees for filing the grievance.
Parker said she fears that the changes would have a major impact on the 3,000 students in the program, in part because Indian preference wouldn't be applied to the new student specialist positions.
Believing that Native voices have been left out of the discussions impacting the program, Parker and her colleagues reached out to various tribes and organizations to raise awareness of what’s happening.
One of those was the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whose leaders expressed their disagreement with eliminating federally funded positions in a letter to Gist on Monday.
“I just feel like we have been ignored,” Parker said. “I’m really glad that people are listening now, but we’ve had these issues for two years now, ever since this administration took over Indian education. Nobody listened to us, but they’re listening now.”