Community conversations surrounding Tulsa Public Schools’ imminent budget crisis haven’t been easy.
Through five meetings, Superintendent Deborah Gist has listened as hundreds of stakeholders shared their thoughts about how to slash $20 million from next year’s budget. The meetings, the latest of which was at McLain High School on Thursday evening, involve group discussions about what should and shouldn’t be cut.
School district officials have made clear that almost nothing is off the table when it comes to potential reductions. Fewer teachers and support staff, less after-school programming, and cuts to athletics and transportation services all are being considered.
What people are finding during these conversations, Gist said, is that there’s no easy answer. Each option has consequences.
“They want the arts. They want sports,” she said. “They want enough teachers to have reasonable class sizes. So they want everything that we would all imagine our kids need and deserve. It’s very difficult, then, to work together to recognize that everything is going to be affected by these decisions.”
The good news is that Tulsans want Tulsa Public Schools to succeed, which Gist said is reflected in the high turnout at the meetings. Six more are scheduled through the next two weeks, including three on Saturday.
Community members and district employees have taken a keen interest in what led to the monumental budget shortfall. Many say they want to be part of the solution.
Sandra Langenkamp is one of those people. She and her husband were two of about 100 people who attended Thursday’s meeting at McLain.
Langenkamp, whose children attended Carver Middle School and Booker T. Washington High School, didn’t know much about school budgets and education funding before the meeting. But she understood the need for Tulsa’s public school system to survive its latest and largest financial hurdle.
“We are so hoping that Tulsa Public Schools stays very strong, and we’re here not only to learn, but to see if we can contribute any ideas or reinforce any good ideas that come out,” she said. “This school district is very, very important to the development of the city and the county, so we’re here to help.”
Bill Martin, a retired priest and business executive who teaches fundamentals of technology at McLain, also said he went to the meeting in hopes of helping in some way.
Martin said he worries about what kind of effect $20 million in cuts will have on student education — especially after the instability schools have faced in recent years.
TPS officials reportedly have made reductions of $22 million since 2015, largely through school closures and consolidations, district office reorganizations and changes to transportation services. They blame the anticipated $20 million budget shortfall largely on declining enrollment and a decade of education funding cuts at the state level.
“My concern is the amount of churn that’s going on,” Martin said. “I’m a believer that people respond best when things are somewhat stable, and this is a tumultuous time with reorganizations and now this financial problem. So my hope is that at the end of the day, the quality of education and teaching will be higher, not lower.”
McLain librarian Michelle Stevenson said her biggest concern is that cuts are made without enough consideration of the long-term effects they’ll have on schools.
“Different parts of the city have different problems and different strengths,” Stevenson said. “Sometimes those across-the-board cuts hurt one school more than the other. So I think it’s important to be mindful of those things and really look at, ‘If we cut this, what happens?’ ”
For instance, she said previous reductions to bus routes have affected numerous families on the city’s north side who rely on district transportation. A lot of McLain students now ride the city bus to school, which she said causes anxiety due to the lack of supervision.
Eliminating transportation for high school students is one option being considered for the coming budget cuts. But Stevenson said she doesn’t think her school can handle that kind of change.
North Tulsa education activist Arthur Candler, meanwhile, said he’s tired of TPS asking families how to solve problems he believes are self-inflicted. He said it’s the district’s responsibility to create a plan — not the community’s — and he wants officials to stop blaming the state for the $20 million budget hole.
Ultimately, Candler said the district’s previous solutions to financial shortfalls, such as Project Schoolhouse in 2011, haven’t instilled a lot of confidence in him about how this latest effort will end.
“I don’t have any optimism now because I’ve seen too much go against us as a community and against our children,” he said. “There’s some problems here, and we didn’t manifest those problems. It shouldn’t all be put back on the community, on parents. We need to understand what is happening in the system, and the system always finds a way to say it’s not its fault. So there are some things that have got to be looked at.”
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 Friday.
Four 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.