The Tulsa school board approved Superintendent Deborah Gist’s budget-reduction recommendations to shut down four elementary schools during a contentious board meeting that went late into Tuesday night.
Board members voted 4-3 in favor of closing Wright and Jones elementary schools, with Brian Hosmer, Jennettie Marshall and Stacey Woolley voting against the proposals, and 5-2 in favor of closing Mark Twain and Grimes elementary schools, with Marshall and Woolley voting against.
The votes came individually after hearing from several supporters and opponents of the recommendations.
The closures of the four schools after this school year are projected to save the district an estimated $2 million to $3 million next school year and are part of Superintendent Deborah Gist’s extensive plan to eliminate about $20 million from the 2020-21 budget to avoid a deficit. Administrators blame the shortfall on declining enrollment and a decade of state cuts to education.
The final — and largest — cost-saving measure in Gist’s budget-reduction plan won’t be voted on until later. The recommendation would save the district an estimated $13 million to $14 million though reductions to district office services, which include operational efficiencies and the creation and deletion of an unreleased number of positions.
TPS notified 84 district office employees last week that their jobs will be recommended for deletion. The district has not released specifics about affected jobs due to the legal and contractual obligations surrounding the reduction process.
Gist said the recommendations aligned with community feedback collected during a series of public meetings in the fall. She also said they are intended to limit the direct impact on student and families, with about 75% of proposed reductions coming from the district office if approved by the board at a later date.
“We do feel like that the recommendations that we put before the board tonight are limiting direct impact to students and teachers in Tulsa,” Gist said. “The great majority of the recommendations are happening at the district office, which we also heard from our community as what they wanted.”
Students from Jones, Grimes and Wright will be sent to nearby schools in August, while Mark Twain will be consolidated into Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy. Each site — except Jones — was chosen for closure largely due to its relatively low enrollment and low capacity utilization. Jones was selected because the school is over capacity and its building is in need of expensive repairs.
Approximately 200 community members attended the heated meeting, during which two people were escorted out by TPS police for vocal disruptions.
Many, including some who were there to support Wright’s deaf-education program, spoke against closing the schools.
The deaf-education program will move to Patrick Henry Elementary School in 2020-21 as a result of the vote. Officials say they plan to move the program in its entirety, including its staff members, to Patrick Henry and take advantage of planned renovations at the receiving school to make the transition easier.
Xavier Doolittle, who lives near Wright, urged board members not to close the school to protect the integrity of the deaf-education program.
“I understand that there is a huge impact on the shortfall and the need to cover for that, but when we have students just like in Wright who have a culture and have a program that addresses their needs as deaf students, we are putting the most vulnerable at the front of where we’re considering to make these cuts.
”If we’re truly dedicated to equity in our schools, we need to find a way to prioritize those who have the most needs.”
Sarah Brewer, the lead deaf education teacher at Wright, said she and her colleagues support the move to Patrick Henry and see it as a way to rejuvenate the program, which she believes has become complacent.
Wright PTA Vice President Shelley Anderson disagreed with Brewer and said the teacher didn’t understand the consequences of moving the program because she doesn’t have a deaf child.
Several community members walked out of the meeting in an emotional response to the board’s approval of closing Wright.
Darryl Bright, president of Citizens United for a Better Educational System, blamed a lack of genuine community engagement on the district’s declining enrollment and subsequent need to close schools. He called the TPS public meetings addressing the budget shortfall a waste of time and questioned why officials ignored petitions to save Penn Elementary School and the McLain Seventh Grade Academy in north Tulsa last year.
“We talk more about reconfigurations of schools and closing schools than we do about teaching and learning,” Bright said. “These schools are in communities that are being devastated. And let me tell you something: Just like Penn and just like the seventh-grade center, who’s standing around watching these schools’ enrollment drop and test scores drop without a strategic plan to help them retain and attract students? …
“We’re the moral authority on this. We have the resources. Let’s engage these communities in a dialogue about how you improve that school. Instead, we get silence.”
The board also voted for a recommendation to adopt a staffing plan that will raise the elementary school staffing ratio from 23:1 to 24:1, meaning class sizes will increase by an average of one student.
District officials say 53% of elementary classes will have fewer than 24 students next year, compared to 67% currently.
This recommendation further changes the elementary staffing plan from allocating general education teachers based on grade-level ranges to allocating them based on school-wide enrollment.
The staffing plan changes are expected to save TPS approximately $3 million and do not affect middle schools or high schools.
Additionally, board members approved a series of recommendations converting Memorial Junior High, Central Junior High and Rogers Junior High into sixth- through eighth-grade middle schools in 2020-21. Those schools currently serve seventh- and eighth-graders.
These changes will eliminate the sixth grade at the following elementary schools: Burroughs, Emerson, Academy Central, Wayman Tisdale, Key, Marshall, Salk and Sequoyah.
Unlike the other recommendations, the grade configuration changes aren’t directly related to budget reductions. Officials say they’re a continuation of the district’s ongoing work to create consistency across TPS.
Currently, there are 14 grade configurations among TPS schools. The goal is for students to experience no more than two building transitions — from fifth to sixth grade and from eighth to ninth grade — by the 2021-22 school year.
Woolley said she voted against the school closures Tuesday because of an “overarching concern” from not knowing what the full implementation of the superintendent’s recommendations will entail.
“I feel that without knowing the complete package, voting first for the smaller savings that also most directly affect students puts the cart before the horse,” Woolley said. “We do have some aerial view of what that might look like, (but) there’s no guarantee that the board might all agree with what the final rework might look like, and I think it’s critical that we know that.”
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved an unrelated recommendation authorizing Greenwood Leadership Academy to add fourth and fifth grades next year and finish absorbing Academy Central Elementary.
Academy Central was chosen in 2017 to be gradually converted into the district’s first partnership school and has annually relinquished a single grade to Greenwood Leadership Academy for the past three years.
GLA was on track to add fourth grade next year and fifth grade in two years. Administrators decided to accelerate the process because the district’s newly approved grade configurations will leave Academy Central with only fifth grade in 2020-21 as its fourth-graders move to GLA and its sixth-graders move to Central Middle School.