The chief executive at Tulsa Public Schools intends to propose shutting down four elementary schools as part of a plan to slash $20 million from the 2020-21 budget.

Superintendent Deborah Gist on Tuesday afternoon notified district employees of her intent to recommend the closures of Jones, Wright and Grimes elementaries beginning next year. Further, Gist’s recommendation would consolidate Mark Twain Elementary School into Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy.

Other changes include turning Memorial Junior High School, Central Junior High and Rogers Junior High into 6th to 8th grade middle schools in 2020-21. Those schools currently serve 7th- and 8th-graders.

If the proposal is approved by the school board in January, Mark Twain students in prekindergarten to 5th grade would move to Wayman Tisdale, Gist said. Students currently enrolled at Jones, Grimes and Wright would move to other nearby neighborhood schools.

Additional changes include moving 6th-graders at Burroughs, Emerson, Academy Central and Tisdale elementaries to the current Central Junior High. Sixth-graders at Key, Marshall and Salk would move to Memorial Junior High.

Students entering 6th grade at Sequoyah Elementary would have preference at Rogers Junior High or attend Monroe Demonstration Academy as their neighborhood schools. Rising 6th-graders at Kendall-Whittier would have preference at Rogers.

The recommendations related to Memorial, Central and Rogers are a continuation of the district’s work to create consistency in grade configurations across TPS, Gist said, making it easier for families to navigate through the system. Her goal is for students to experience no more than two transitions — from 5th to 6th grade and from 8th to 9th — by 2021-22.

“We know from research and experience that minimizing transitions supports strong academic performance and helps foster meaningful relationships with teachers and peers,” she wrote to district employees. “Additionally, in a middle school setting, students will have expanded access to developmentally appropriate activities, spaces and experiences.”

As school-closure rumors began circulating on social media this week, district officials on Tuesday also began notifying families with information about proposed changes related to the budget cuts.

Parents and families at the affected elementaries received letters inviting them to special meetings at their schools later this month to hear more information about Gist’s potential recommendations to the school board. They’ll also learn about other school options that would be available for students.

“There will always be a place for your child in the Tulsa Public Schools family,” the letter reads. “In the event of a school closure or consolidation, students in the school community have the option to attend a new neighborhood school (their ‘school of right’) or families can apply to send their child to another school in our district.”

The superintendent added that she has every reason to believe teachers at the schools would have other opportunities within TPS.

TPS is in the process of cutting $20 million from its budget for the next school year and plans to discuss its recommendations for cuts during community meetings next week.

“As we work to shape a viable and sustainable future for our district, we have identified some possible changes that would — if approved by our board — impact teachers, students and families at certain schools in our district,” district spokeswoman Lauren Partain said in a statement.

Officials hosted 11 community engagement meetings through September and October and created an online survey to hear from stakeholders about how the school district should slash $20 million from next year’s budget.

The district later released a report detailing the collected feedback, showing community members largely prioritized teacher compensation, class sizes and social-emotional learning and behavioral supports. They also indicated that they were most willing to make budget reductions related to student transportation and bell times, teacher leadership opportunities, building utilization and central office services.

After completing its initial community engagement phase, TPS conducted a series of closed working sessions with key stakeholders through November to dive into the input.

Now the district plans to share the ideas formulated in these meetings with the public during a second round of community meetings at four high schools from Dec. 9 through Dec. 12.

Gist has stressed that no decision has been made amid the ongoing budget redesign process, known as the Shaping Our Future initiative. She plans to propose a modified budget for 2020-21 to the school board by the end of January. Board members are expected to vote on the recommendations around that time.

During Monday’s regular meeting, Gist said board members will face a tough decision that will affect the district’s future. But she believes the current recommendations won’t leave TPS in a state of disrepair.

“Because of the community’s involvement, because of the support that we’ve gotten through this process, we have landed on some recommendations that, while difficult in so many ways, are also very doable and leave us with the ability to do so much of the additional work that we’ve heard from the community about the things that people keep as a priority for our schools and want to make sure that we hold onto,” the superintendent said. “And that’s what we wanted, which is why we called the whole process Shaping Our Future and didn’t see it as just an exercise in cutting to meet a bottom line.”

District officials largely blame the $20 million deficit on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts to education.

Oklahoma slashed more per-pupil funding than any other state from 2008 to 2018. TPS saw an enrollment loss of 5,000 students during that time, lessening its share of the state aid through the funding formula. The district projected a revenue loss of about $15 million from 2018-19 through the current school year.

The district has cut $22 million since 2015 and dipped into its fund balance last year for the first time in a decade to avoid a negative balance. The fund balance is on track to run out by next year, giving way to the projected deficit.

Oklahoma School Report Cards: See the grades of each TPS school

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Kyle Hinchey

918-581-8451

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @kylehinchey

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