As Legislators Weigh School Cuts, a Rising Outcry from Parents and Advocates

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Night after night, state Sen. Josh Brecheen of Coalgate has stayed up until midnight, answering impassioned emails and calls from parents worried their local school district would be lost in a consolidation effort.

Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville says more people are stopping him in Walmart and at church and Rotary Club meetings to unload their viewpoints on the issue.

In Sand Springs, hundreds of parents attended a town-hall meeting in which Superintendent Lloyd Snow asked for help deciding which programs and services should be chopped if education funding cuts continue. To keep the mood light, he called it a “menu of misery” and included a skit in the presentation. But the conversation was bleak.

Across Oklahoma, an apparently growing number of parents, community leaders, educators and other residents are raising louder voices about what they view as a crisis in common education.

The outcry apparently led to impact on Thursday when Ford, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, announced his committee would not hear any school consolidation bills this session, including one he authored. In a written statement, he thanked “the parents, teachers and school patrons who’ve taken the time to share their views and concerns with me, and with their own senators.”

Consolidation is a hot issue in places where people are afraid their local school district will be merged with another. But emotions are running high over other school issues as well.

The overarching one is funding. With the tailspin in oil and gas prices and the revenue plunge, the prospect of additional cuts this and next fiscal years, and even another revenue failure in January 2017, has grown. Teacher pay raises are in jeopardy. More hits to classrooms could be felt in the fall.

Amid the concerns, a House committee on Monday approved a bill to create education savings accounts, a voucher program that would let families divert state money to send their children to private schools. Parents and children, out of school for President’s Day, packed the room for the vote.

Regardless of different views, there is a sense of impending, widespread loss.

Alex Public Schools Superintendent Jason James said he’s getting more questions from residents about issues affecting his district, including how he will deal with budget cuts.

“Last year, when I met people at the community center, they would ask what’s going on at the Capitol,” James said. “Now I get a dozen phone calls or face-to-face conversations where people are asking about specific legislation, like what’s an education savings account.”

Education officials and non-parent advocacy groups – “the education lobby,” as some call it – are doing what they can to stir the embers of protest.

Earlier this month, Moore Public Schools Superintendent Robert Romines sent an email blast saying, “MPS needs your help!” regarding the bill to create education savings accounts, an online news site reported. He directed recipients to a web page with “facts about what could happen to Moore Schools if vouchers move forward in Oklahoma.” The online site, The Middle Ground, criticized Romines for using his official capacity to campaign against the program.

Romines said he reaches out to residents to get their opinions on education issues before speaking to lawmakers. He uses the feedback to discuss what people in his community believe.

John Cox, superintendent of Peggs Public School and president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, said consolidation is the biggest issue driving parents to action. Small community schools feel threatened by the proposal, he said.

Legislators may be accustomed to hearing from teachers and administrators on issues, but when parents turn out in droves, the impact is amplified, he said.

“Sometimes, it appears we’re just trying to save our job,” Cox said. “With parents, it’s saying, ‘We’re trying to protect our kids.’”

Snow, the Sand Springs superintendent, said in reference to his town hall, “We’re just trying to prepare our people to be a part of the conversation, more than anything.”

On the menu of possible cuts in the district: transportation, athletics, counseling and art. Plus, class sizes will likely go up.

“We talked about the real pain and anguish that could happen in this district and will happen in all districts. It’s just a matter of time,” said Snow, who’s been at Sand Springs Public Schools for 36 years.

“I think part of the solution is parent power,” he said. “…They’re reactive to the pain. When the pain is turned up, that’s when they’re more likely to show up.”

Snow said the last time he could recall droves of parents involved in school politics was in 2011, when the state approved the third grade retention law. That law requires children to pass a reading test by the end of third grade. Parents packed school meetings, which were moved to an auditorium.

Tulsa Public Schools parent Sarah Dougherty said social media is a key reason more parents are involved. Dougherty’s two children attend Lee Elementary School.

Word of Monday’s House committee vote on education accounts first spread on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Dougherty said. Parents shared those posts as well as how to contact lawmakers and when and where the hearing would be.

“There’s just a quickness to it,” Dougherty said. “Parents can get engaged and follow through on what information is available.”

The greater involvement also could be an election-year phenomenon. In addition to the presidential race, Oklahoma’s ballot could have several controversial state questions, including a proposal to hike the sales tax to help fund education.

Sen. Ford cited feedback from constituents as one of the reasons he won’t hear school consolidation bills this session. It’s important to listen to residents to be an effective politician, he said.

“At the end of the day, we are a reflection of our community,” Ford said. “If they like us, we get re-elected. If they don’t, we don’t come back.”