SCHOOL CLOSURES

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist speaks about recently proposed school closures Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist’s full list of recommendations to slash $20 million from the 2020-21 budget should be revealed Monday evening at the first of four community meetings scheduled this week.

District leaders are hosting the meetings at high schools across the city to share the rest of the potential budget redesign plan before it’s presented to the school board in January.

Last week Gist announced her intent to shut down four elementary schools to help reduce the shortfall, which she said would save between $2 million and $3 million annually. Students at Jones, Grimes and Wright would move to nearby neighborhood schools next year, while Mark Twain would be consolidated into Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy.

The announcement also included eliminating sixth grade at several elementaries and sending those students to three junior highs that will be converted into middle schools.

The superintendent later told reporters the majority of the remaining budget cuts — about $17 million — would center on district office services. Although she did not provide specifics, the reductions would involve a reorganization and elimination of some employees who work outside the schools.

This week’s meetings will allow Gist to announce the soon-to-be proposed cuts in their entirety and explain their impact on the district’s future.

“I think the message that we’re going to be sharing is what is our vision for Tulsa Public Schools?” she said. “Where are we going as a district? And at the same time, recognizing there are things that we need to do to live within our means and to have the size of schools that we need in order to fulfill that vision. That’s the whole part of the presentation that we’ll be sharing with the public over the four nights of next week.”

The first meeting on Monday evening will be at McLain High School’s new fieldhouse, 4929 N. Peoria Ave. Tuesday’s is at Memorial High School gymnasium, 5840 S. Hudson Ave. East Central High School, 612150 E. 11th St., will host Wednesday’s meeting in its gym, while the final meeting on Thursday is scheduled at Webster High School’s Allen Fieldhouse, 1919 W. 40th St. Each meeting is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Community members will have a minimum of two opportunities to address school board members about Gist’s recommendations before they vote in early 2020.

District officials largely blame the $20 million deficit on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts to education. While Oklahoma public school enrollment is the highest it has ever been after recently exceeding 700,000 students for the first time, TPS has lost about 5,000 students in the past decade.

Tulsa experienced multiple rounds of school closures in that time, the largest of which came in 2011 under former Superintendent Keith Ballard. The Project Schoolhouse efficiency initiative eliminated 14 schools to save an estimated $5 million annually.

In 2017, the district shut down three elementary schools in west Tulsa and relocated students from Clinton Middle School to the Webster High School campus. Three schools in north Tulsa closed at the end of 2018-19 to make room for a revamped Monroe Demonstration Academy, and two others were consolidated.

Gist said she hopes to avoid more closures moving forward and that the plan to address the $20 million shortfall would prevent another budget deficit for about two to three years.

“What I’ve been making sure people understand is that two things have to change in order for that to be able to be true,” she said.

“One is state funding, and that is the biggest driver by far. If we were funded what we were funded in 2008, even with our enrollment declines, we would have tens of millions of dollars more than we have now in our budget.”

The other thing she believes needs to happen is a turnaround in enrollment, which contributes to the district’s share of state aid through the funding formula. Gist said TPS is committed to improving its quality of education and the perception of its schools.


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Kyle Hinchey

918-581-8451

kyle.hinchey

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @kylehinchey

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