Local school districts continue to grapple with the pending statewide teacher walkout scheduled for next month while being caught between the skeletal state of public education funding and the fear of harming to the students they serve.
Last week, Marietta Schools announced they would
participate after a poll showed 90 percent of the district’s employees were in favor of it. Healdton superintendent Terry Shaw said his district will participate, a decision that will be officially made this week in a school board meeting. He said the plan is to use weather days to cover the first days of the walkout, then determine how to proceed. Missed days will need to be made up in summer, another complicating factor for districts.
“It depends on how many days it goes,” Shaw said. “If it goes longer than three days, we’ll have to make those days up.”
Shaw said the decision was unanimous among board members and the administration. The district will officially vote to participate next week. He said in Healdton, church organizations and other groups are discussing the possibility of housing students during the walkout, but there are no solid plans yet.
“My board is in support of it, our teachers have discussed it, everybody’s on the same page,” Shaw said.
Davis, Dickson and Ardmore’s boards of education have passed resolutions affirming their support for a teacher pay raise and an increase in education funding, but have not taken any further steps.
Some districts are opting to send teacher delegates to the state capitol starting April 2.
Plainview Public Schools and Madill Public Schools’ boards have not yet taken any action.
Lone Grove Schools superintendent Meri Jayne Miller said the Lone Grove board of education decided on a middle-ground approach. The district will use two weather make-up days as advocacy days on April 2 and 3, then plan to reopen on April 4.
“Educators are very torn,” Miller said. “No one wants a walkout, they just want to teach. However, they realize how important this is.”
Miller said if the walkout continues past April 4, the district will send teacher delegates to the capitol to advocate for a teacher pay raise and more education funding. Miller said she and the board reached the decision after informally polling teachers and support staff and taking time to weigh their options.
“There are other ways to support teachers,” Miller said. “We still have students we need to take care of.”
Miller said standardized testing deadlines, the potential impact on graduating seniors and the students who rely on free and reduced lunch from the school were all factors.
While some schools are hesitant to close down, others simply can’t. Jody Harlan, communications director for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, said the Oklahoma School for the Deaf in Sulphur will remain open, but teachers and staff can take leave to protest.
“We serve a vulnerable population,” Harlan said. “Parents of kids who attend a residential school would struggle to find care for them [if OSD closed fully].”
Harlan said about 30 percent of OSD’s student body are commuters whose transportation to the school from other districts may be affected by a shutdown. The other 70 percent are residents at the school 24 hours a day.
“We have staff who might need to shuffle positions around,” Harlan said. “We’ll probably know more next week.”
The department asked teachers and staff who take leave to give five days notice before they do so. Harlan said it’s only a request, nothing mandatory or enforced, to make sure the school can continue to operate.
Torie Jolliff, a science teacher at Dickson Middle School, said she’s relatively new to the profession but has seen her colleagues pushed to the breaking point by financial strain, continual cuts and an ongoing teacher shortage.
“I obviously don’t want a walkout, I don’t agree with a walkout because you’re walking out on your job,” Jolliff said. “I think people don’t understand that it makes us sick to our stomach to even think about it. It feels like you’re backed into a corner.”
During her first year as an elementary school teacher in Ardmore City Schools, copy paper was rationed out and she often had to buy her own. She spent $1,000 or more on necessary supplies for her classroom. This year, she’s spent between $300 and $400 on supplies, well over the $200 mark for tax deductions.
“That’s incredibly frustrating to me because that’s one of the main subjects where you need demonstrations to understand what’s going on,” Jolliff said. “We have a textbook and some beakers I can’t use because we don’t have any sort of material to use with them.”
Jolliff and another teacher took the chance to visit with state Representative Tom Hardin this week after Dickson Schools unexpectedly closed due to a broken water line. She said the meeting quickly turned circular, and she felt as though it went nowhere. Her Facebook post recounting the meeting has been shared nearly 900 times.
“I just wanted them to know this is what we’re up against,” Jolliff said. “I hate to use that phrasing because we should be on the same side. We shouldn’t be against each other in the first place.”
The starting date for the walkout puts students at risk of missing state testing, which could impact federal funding for next year. Students who rely on free and reduced lunch programs could go without for the duration of a school shutdown, parents will need to arrange for childcare and extracurriculars could be impacted. While the last thing many teachers want is a walkout, many of them will do it anyway, hoping to spur the legislature and the voters into action.
“Students are the real victims of the (state) Legislature’s failure to properly fund education and state government’s core services,” Oklahoma Educators Association president Alicia Priest said during a press conference on Friday. “While Oklahoma cut funding to public schools by over 28 percent in the last 10 years, our school class sizes have ballooned to impossible numbers.”
OEA has presented a proposal to raise teacher pay by $10,000, raise support staff pay by $5,000, increase public education funding and raise state employees’ wages with increased gross production, income, fuel and tobacco taxes, ideas borrowed from Step Up Oklahoma and other funding bills. The organization gave the state legislature until April 1 to consider the $905.7 million plan to avoid a teacher walkout.