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.