While participating in a Tulsa Public Schools community engagement forum last weekend at Edison Preparatory School, my contribution to a “hopes” list was that students would return to the district.
Others at my table said they hoped TPS graduates would be elevated out of poverty, city and county governments would work more with schools and all students would be college- or career-ready.
The “concerns” list was longer. It included the loss of arts and sports that keep kids engaged, slow action by TPS officials to make budget adjustments, increased class sizes, too much mandated training, ballooning administration, cuts to teachers and support staff, reduction in pay and the economic hit to Tulsa if schools didn’t improve.
The forums gather opinions about how the district ought to cut $20 million from its budget next year.
The final meetings will be 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Central High School and Thursday at East Central High school. Private meetings will be held through November, and the public will get about a week for input before the school board sees a proposal by Dec. 16.
That’s a short time to make a massive cut.
The forums put participants through a few exercises to get a sense of priorities. The surveys suffer from flaws in the math and language used, something everyone at my table pointed out.
Still, the conversations are happening, frustrations being vented and questions getting answered. Not always to everyone’s satisfaction, but the opportunity is there.
At the forum I attended, cutting administration was a popular idea. It’s an easy target. Some top officials make over six figures while teachers and support staff work several jobs to pay basic household bills.
Also, people aren’t really sure what administrators do.
A newly released 29-page organizational chart — without names or salaries — contains titles that don’t clearly describe jobs.
It’s hard to know how the chief of schools differs from the chief learning officer. Departments are called Talent Management, Design and Innovation and Learning Office Academics. Instead of special education, it’s called exceptional student support services.
There are instructional leadership directors overseeing schools and another page listing positions like directors of elementary and secondary learning.
District officials reorganized the central office in May that added 28 jobs at a cost of $1.5 million, prompting more questions about what’s happening at the central office.
What if TPS got rid of the Education Service Center, the actual building at 3027 S. New Haven Ave.? How would education or the budget change if administrators were housed in schools?
Land records indicate the property is assessed at $15 million including the adjacent enrollment center. Utilities for the service center last year cost about $175,000.
Other district properties with administration include the Wilson Teaching and Learning Academy, four bus barns, a child nutrition building, an enrollment center and a facility with maintenance, buses and a warehouse. The service center has about 14 departments with space being rented by the Tulsa Council of PTAs and Foundation for Tulsa Schools.
The service center and enrollment center hold about 340 staff listed on the organization chart.
When it opened 60 years ago, it was a three-story building designed by Donald McCormick that cost $1 million. In 1969, architect Charles Ward added three more floors, one dedicated to the new, heavy data-processing machines.
That year, TPS hit its highest enrollment in district history at about 86,000 students. Currently, there are about 39,000 students in 75 schools.
School consolidation was a concern from the public at the recent TPS community forums.
TPS closed 17 buildings in the 1970s and 25 in the 1980s. The last consolidations occurred in 2010 during Project Schoolhouse that closed 14 buildings, saving the district $5 million a year.
Through all that, the service center has remained open. The adjacent building, last used as the Eisenhower International School, was turned into an enrollment center in 2014.
Tulsa has an example of moving school administrators onto campuses.
In 2017, Tulsa Community College and Tulsa Tech announced they would sell the building both schools use as administrative offices at 6111 E. Skelly Drive. It was jointly purchased in 1993.
Tulsa Tech has been renovating and expanding its Lemley campus on Memorial Drive to house administrators, and TCC will place administrators on three campuses.
TCC President Leigh Goodson will have an office at the TCC metro campus. She said the decision came after a 26% reduction in state funding in four years and student demographic changes.
“It’s always good for us to be near the students as much as we are able, and certainly having offices on campus is going to help that,” Goodson said. “The central administration often travels between all campuses, and we are still going to be doing that. …Nationally, enrollment is going down. With that economic trend, it created a need for us to vacate space, and it’s easier for administration to do that.”
Of TCC’s 100 central office employees, about 60 will be going to the metro campus, and the rest will be at the northeast and west campuses. Renovations were needed for the move, but long-term savings are expected.
It’s not a perfect comparison.
TPS has far more federal and state regulations to follow and more buildings to maintain, and getting rid of the service center wouldn’t solve the financial problem. At best, it would be a one-time sale that would take years to complete.
But getting administrators to mix more with students, parents and the community would go far in understanding what they do. And, they would directly see the impact of their policies.
The ultimate fix for TPS must include an understanding of why students are leaving the district and for lawmakers to recognize that urban education is different and more expensive.
State funding needs to continue increasing and it’s time to reconsider the equalization rule that prevents local communities from investing in their schools.
For now, TPS will be cutting $20 million, and there is a small window of time for the public to add their voices.
The worksheets and surveys may be lacking, but it would be a bigger failure to not show up or speak up.