Classroom size, local school budget cuts and a lack of support staffers and student materials was on the minds of public school parents and teachers who came for face time with Tulsa-area lawmakers Tuesday evening.
The Tulsa Parent Legislative Action Committee, a grassroots parent organization that advocates for policy matters and improved state funding for public education, hosted the special forum.
Instead of giving them a microphone in front of a large audience, they gave the 60 attendees a seat at a round table with their own state representative or senator.
“I came to learn how it all works, how bills get passed, the timeline,” said Niki Grauberger, a parent, substitute teacher, office volunteer and PTA president at Clinton West Elementary School. “There are so many bills that sound good, but then they don’t pass.”
Grauberger, one other parent and a teacher had the undivided attention of state Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman for nearly 90 minutes.
And before the night was over, Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, told them what many of the lawmakers told the constituents seated with them: “You do not need an event like this to talk to me.” She handed out cards with her email address and cellphone number.
Melissa Hicks told Ikley-Freeman about her experience as the librarian at Zarrow International School. She said that school is fortunate to have a great deal of financial support from its parent foundation, which even funds some school employee positions.
But for the last five or six years since the school’s library assistant position was cut, she has had to rely on a revolving door of about 15 parent volunteers to operate the library, and she stays at work every night until 6 p.m. to complete administrative tasks and janitorial work because the school custodian has time only to take out the trash.
“I just really want legislators to hear: ‘Thank you for the raise, but it’s really not all about teacher pay. It’s about working conditions. It’s class size, lack of support staff, lack of materials,” Hicks said.
Several lawmakers echoed the concerns expressed by their constituents about Tulsa Public Schools’ having to right-size its budget to the tune of $20 million in cuts.
Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, told the handful of people seated with her about recent meetings she has attended with TPS administrators, school board members and city councilors.
“We wanted to talk about admin costs, including consultants being paid 100 (grand) and they’re coming in five times a year,” Goodwin said. “Are they being paid too much? Are they beneficial?”
Christiaan Mitchell said he attended because the admissions process his household just endured to get his 5-year-old child into a TPS magnet school raised a lot of concerns and questions in his mind.
“In addition to being an attorney, I have a master’s in education. After we went through the tour and the lottery (admissions) process, I felt frustrated and kind of angry that we had to go through this process to get access to this kind of education,” Mitchell said. “If the open concept and play-centered model (at her school) is best for kids, why can my daughter not get this kind of education at the neighborhood school?”
Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, listened to Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association and a TPS parent, and then asked her several questions.
“I’m in a position to make decisions with broad implications,” Blancett said. “I use opportunities like these to try to better educate myself.”
She had several questions about Mott-Wright’s chief concern — any proposals to expand private school voucher and scholarship programs that could come during the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 3.
“They’re going to wrap vouchers in trauma,” she told Blancett, who asked her to explain what she meant. “First it was Lindsey Nicole Henry (scholarships for students with disabilities). Then it was bullying. Now it will be ACEs.”
She was referring to adverse childhood experiences, a growing hot topic being discussed in criminal justice, health care and education circles, as well as by policymakers.
Amy Bracher, whose two children attend Tulsa Public Schools and who teaches at Rogers Early College Junior High and High School, said regular opportunities for communication like Tuesday’s event are desperately needed.
“There has to be a bridge between parents and legislators. They don’t know what to say, what to ask,” she said.