Small neighborhood elementary schools in Oklahoma City Public Schools will remain in place for the 2017-18 school year.
The decision to spend another year studying the issue of the cost effectiveness of all OKCPS schools came after six public forums Superintendent Aurora Lora held at the schools that were to be closed.
“I know in the past there has probably been a lot distrust in the district and broken promises,” said Lora. “But I do want to say it’s a new day and we are listening.”
There were relieved looks and relaxed postures among visitors who had been worried about the possible closures for several weeks.
“With this decision tonight, it shows me that she is listening. Therefore, who wouldn’t want to listen to her? Previously, we didn’t have superintendents willing to listen. It’s a great change,” said Michael Washington, a community organizer on the East side of Oklahoma City.
However, state funding problems that caused the district to consider closing schools below 300 students will not go away and will need to be addressed for the 2018-19 school year.
“There is no easy way to cut $10 million dollars,” said Lora.
But all indicators point to that figure as a likely target for what OKCPS would need to cut for next school year if the Republican super-majority in the Oklahoma Legislature continues to resist raising taxes to provide adequate funding for public schools.
The Oklahoma Legislature under Republican control for the last decade has continued to cut revenues even as agriculture, oil and gas prices declined. The two dynamics together have resulted in state coffers being diminished and increasing pressures being applied for state agencies and services to slash their budgets.
Education has not been exempt from that process where cuts in funding from the levels of previous years have continued year after year. Last year’s situation was drastic resulting in drastic cuts in what the state passes on to its public school districts.
And so OKCPS cut $30 million for the current year to hold their budget within the money they received from the state.
Normally, February and March are the months when public school districts work on their budgets for the next school year in order to have enough time to negotiate and prepare employment contracts for the coming year before summer break.
State Senator Kay Floyd was present the entire evening Tuesday for the Gatewood and Edgemere forums. And she was present Thursday for the special board meeting.
She talked to Free Press after the board meeting about the situation in the Legislature.
“We’ve been told that everything is on the table this year, as far as looking at the budget. We are going to review everything. There aren’t going to be any sacred cows,” Floyd said.
She could not say if that actually included taxes, though. In past years the Republican majority has not considered restoring taxes to their previous levels.
But Floyd said that her caucus – the Democratic Party caucus – has pushed to raise revenues. But that would mean that everything would be on the table, including taxes.
“What we need to do is make the tough decisions and get the state back on track,” said Floyd.
Now that the district has decided to hold off on consolidating its small schools, it still needs to plan for a worst-case scenario in which the district would have to cut $10 million from this year’s levels that reflect the $30 million cut from last year.
According to Chief of Staff Rebecca Kaye, Plan B is to institute a hiring freeze and allow natural attrition through normal levels of retirement and resignations to reduce the size of the work force of the district. It could mean no actual layoffs. That would apply to central office staff and teachers.
In addition, the administration now plans to empty the Administration building at 900 N Klein and disperse various central office staff to other buildings around the district.
The district then plans to declare the building surplus and sell it.
Eventually, the former bank building at 615 N Classen will be ready from its remodeling and the “central office” staff will once again be in a central office.
OKCPS was recently given $10 million in TIF funds from the City of Oklahoma City to remodel the building. It had been purchased in an earlier year.
Kaye anticipates there will be 41 of the district’s 44 elementary schools that will see a reduction in at least one teaching position as a cost-saving measure. Unlike in previous years, some buildings will have to combine two grade levels in the same classroom in order to fully utilize its faculty.
Lora and Kaye both confirmed to Free Press that especially since they worked so hard to add curriculum staff to the district, those positions will be kept to help teachers equip students to achieve at the highest levels.
The district now waits for the Legislature to release hard numbers for next year’s school funding so that they can set the OKCPS budget.