The Tulsa school board passed a resolution Monday urging congressional delegates to advocate for additional federal funding for the nation’s public schools.
Nearly $145 million of the $13 billion the federal government offered for education in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — or CARES — Act was made available for Oklahoma school districts last week. That included more than $16 million for Tulsa Public Schools, but the Tulsa school board says it’s not enough.
The resolution passed unanimously after Superintendent Deborah Gist said the national allocation to education “pales wildly” in comparison to stimulus dollars offered in 2008, when education systems faced only an economic crisis.
“Far and wide, to me it is an outrage what has happened here,” board member Brian Hosmer echoed.
On top of the current economic crisis, which is arguably worse than that in 2008, Gist said, schools are also facing a public health crisis, emotional well-being crisis and education crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has turned education and consequently students’ lives upside down, and many likely will need additional help to catch up on their learning, Gist said.
A second round of pandemic relief is being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives now, she noted.
Gist said the school board has already held conversations with U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern, but board Vice President Suzanne Schreiber encouraged community members, parents, students and teachers to reach out to their representatives to explain real-life impacts.
Board member Jania Wester also recommended the Parent Legislative Action Committee as a “great way” for parents to get involved.
Board member Stacey Woolley said the intended action of the resolution would benefit all students, rural and urban, Tulsan or not, and she encouraged advocacy to do what’s best for them.
”And, quite frankly, the future of our society,” Woolley said. “Without an education we are all in trouble.”
Building leases: The board also discussed the potential leasing of two recently closed elementary school buildings, Mark Twain and Wright, to charter schools.
KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Tulsa is seeking the Mark Twain Elementary School facility, 541 S. 43rd West Ave., to house its expanding high school, and Collegiate Hall is seeking the Wright facility, 1110 E. 45th Place, to house a new elementary program, which aims to be the first STEM-based elementary school in Tulsa.
KIPP Tulsa is currently renting the ECDC-Porter facility, 1740 W. 41st St., and Collegiate Hall shares a building with Marshal Elementary School, 1142 E. 56th St.
Don Parker, executive director of KIPP Tulsa, said the high school had about 150 ninth- and 10th-grade students this year but will have about 233 ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade students next year.
Although the Porter facility could “marginally” support the high school in the coming year, it wouldn’t “at all” the next year, Parker said.
“(Mark Twain)’s a much bigger space, and we need a bigger space, and it’s a little closer,” Parker said, mentioning that the high school serves mostly north Tulsa students.
Mark Twain has a capacity of about 550, depending on the configuration of 33 classrooms, Parker said.
A slew of speakers, including Nikhil Kawlra, executive director of the college preparatory school, spoke in favor of Collegiate Hall’s renting the Wright building. They also included a parent, an eighth-grade student and a teacher.
Kawlra and the student both voiced students’ longing for a space they can call their own, and a parent shared a safety concern about the students’ being shuffled in and out of portable trailer classrooms.
Collegiate Hall teacher Ben Imlay said he had concerns during the hiring process when he learned that the program shared a building with another school, but he said he saw educators work together to put students first and attempt to build distinct school cultures.
However, 200 students transitioning among classrooms in a single hallway can get intense, and Collegiate Hall students deserve to have spaces for assemblies and have access to a library, he said.
With Wright, “our school can finally become the school our children deserve,” he added.
The board’s agenda states that each property to be leased received only one application in the two-week window when they could be submitted.
School board member Jennettie Marshall passionately voiced her belief that the application process for the facility leases was not open or transparent. She called the process an “inside job” and “quid pro quo,” saying board members met in advance with a representative of KIPP to discuss the possibility of its leasing the Mark Twain building. She also said the board has a conflict of interest with Collegiate Hall.
Although Gist said the board made the leasing opportunities known to at least a dozen organizations, Marshall said some told her they didn’t apply because they thought the process was skewed.
Board President Shawna Keller was quick to defend the board members’ integrity, and Schreiber called it “unfortunate” that there were schools or organizations that felt differently.
“If there are folks out there that want to seek these buildings, use the process that was created so we can be aware of that and have this discussion,” Schreiber said.
Gist pointed out that there were plenty of rumors that the charter schools were seeking other locations, and she emphasized that the notion that the district is planning around charter schools is “completely unfounded” and “absolutely incorrect,” reminding members how carefully they made the “unwelcome” and “painful but necessary” decision to close the elementary schools earlier in the year due to financial constraints.
”We have been providing lease spaces to charter schools for 20 years,” she said, urging board members and community members to remember that charter school families are Tulsans, too.