Tulsa Public Schools has released a report detailing the community feedback collected during a series of public meetings and through an online survey about the 2020-21 budget redesign effort.
Officials hosted 11 community engagement meetings through September and October and created the survey to hear from stakeholders about how the school district should slash $20 million from next year’s budget.
The report released Monday reflects responses from 5,773 individuals who completed the survey and 847 people who attended the meetings.
Tulsans consistently named teacher compensation, class sizes and social-emotional learning and behavioral supports as the areas they value most. 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.
Superintendent Deborah Gist, who led the meetings, said the input doesn’t surprise her. She noted that community members expressed their desire to focus on reducing services that don’t directly affect students and teachers, a sentiment shared by district officials.
“I think that I would say what we see in these results is that Tulsans care about their schools, and they care about the same things we care about,” Gist said. “They know we need to have reasonable class sizes. They want to make sure that teachers and support employees are compensated well. They care about the arts and extra programming. We care about all of those same things, as well.”
The district largely blames a $20 million deficit on declining enrollment and a decade of state funding cuts to education. TPS has slashed $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 shortfall.
Gist has made clear that almost nothing is off the table when it comes to potential reductions. The community engagement meetings, in addition to the survey, were meant as a way for people to share their thoughts about where that money should and shouldn’t be cut.
“When it comes to looking at potential places for savings, all of us are really striving to find the kinds of things that will have as minimal an impact as possible for teachers and children,” she said. “There really isn’t anything that won’t have an impact, but we want to minimize that, and I think we all share that goal, too.”
In the meetings and survey, participants were provided lists of programs and services and asked to pick the five they value most.
They also developed hypothetical plans to save $20 by selecting investments with various values attached to them. For example, decreasing access to athletic programs was worth $1, while reducing central office services saved $2. The goal of this exercise reportedly was to highlight some of the complex choices that lie ahead.
The three largest groups that responded to the survey were parents at 32%, teachers at 21% and students at 17%. For the question about the most valued programs and services, 46% of survey-takers listed teacher compensation as a top choice, and 41% selected class sizes. Only 4% chose bell times, while 6% picked out-of-school-time learning and central office services.
For the exercise involving the $20 savings plan, 46% of survey-takers chose to change bell times, and 44% chose to reduce teacher leadership roles as well as building utilization. Reducing the central office was the fourth most popular choice at 43%.
Increasing class sizes and reducing teacher compensation were the least popular choices among survey-takers.
Among those who attended the meetings, the top choices for most-valued programs and services were maintaining behavioral and emotional supports at 31%, ensuring that students have high-quality academic materials and assessments at 26%, maintaining the current teacher-to-student ratio at 24% and increasing teacher pay at 23%.
The bottom choices were keeping bell schedules the same at 3% and maintaining training to help teachers train teachers at 6%.
Meeting attendees prioritized reducing the number of teacher coaches at 31%, reducing central office services at 29% and changing bell schedules to reduce transportation costs at 29%.
They least prioritized increasing class sizes and reducing the number of staff in schools.
The community feedback report also lists how people answered two open-ended questions about their biggest hopes for TPS and what concerns they have about the budget challenges.
The most prominent responses about hopes for the district involved ensuring that students have the best quality education and are prepared for post-secondary opportunities at 25%, improving services for students and families at 17%, teacher support at 14% and increasing special programs, enrichment courses and extracurriculars at 14%.
Participants’ biggest concerns were loss of service at 22%, increased class sizes at 20%, declining enrollment at 19%, teacher morale at 18% and student academic standards at 18%.
As part of the second phase of the budget redesign process, the district will begin conducting a series of closed workshops with key stakeholders this week to dive into the collected input.
“We’ll be looking more deeply into the feedback that we’ve gotten from the community during this first phase,” Gist said. “And we’ll also start to ask them to consider in more specific ways some of the tradeoffs around what we have to wrestle with when we’re looking at these really difficult choices.”
The third phase will involve three meetings with the Budget Advisory Committee as well as a second series of community-wide meetings from Dec. 9 through Dec. 12.
Gist plans to propose a modified budget to the school board by the end of January. Community members will have at least two opportunities to speak to board members about the superintendent’s recommendations before they vote on the proposal sometime during the spring semester.