The largest rooms at Gatewood and Edgemere elementary schools were filled with angry parents Tuesday night.
They were there to resist a plan proposed by Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora that would close five elementary schools and convert a current high school into a middle school.
Under the plan, Gatewood, 1821 NW 21, and Edgemere, 3200 N Walker, would be closed and the students would be consolidated into neighboring schools.
Lora is proposing the plan in response to anticipated additional cuts of $4-$10 million from the state on top of the $30 million the district had to cut for this school year ending in June.
But parents are insisting that both the OKCPS Board of Education and the state can do better than closing schools that have been making great strides in providing a meaningful education to children of their neighborhoods.
Parents are also asking why the district would be closing the two schools after over $6 million in MAPS for Kids projects were completed there in just the last five years.
In 2001, Oklahoma City voters chose to tax themselves one cent to pay for MAPS for Kids which included building upgrades, transportation and other enhancements for schools in the Oklahoma City limits.
OKCPS and Putnam City Schools have been the largest recipients because of their large presence in the city limits.
A state representative and a senator who represent the area around the schools spent the evening informally listening to their constituents.
They put the responsibility for the OKCPS struggles on the legislature for not providing adequate funding.
“OKCPS is only having to do this because the legislature hasn’t done their job, and it’s our job to fund schools,” Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-House District 88, told Free Press.
Dunnington’s children attend OKCPS schools. He said school closures are “crushing for the parent…and crushing for the children.”
“We’re putting our children, our families, our communities in an unwinnable situation and we’re doing it for no reason,” said Dunnington. “We can fix this problem.”
Senator Kay Floyd, D-Senate District 46, was blunt with Free Press about her view of the problem.
“We’ve got people who move in because they want these schools. They make financial commitments. They make emotional commitments, and then the legislature doesn’t give the money they need,” said Floyd.
She said that she and the Democratic caucus in the Senate and the Democratic caucus in the House “vote against the budget that cuts education every year.”
“I have yet to understand why we are not doing our job and giving our children the education they deserve,” Floyd said.
The crisis comes after a decade of increasingly larger tax cuts by the Republican dominated legislature significantly reducing revenue.
After November’s elections, Republicans now have a super-majority in both chambers.
At the second night of public forums to present the plan and hear responses, a crowd estimated to be well over 200 filled the Gatewood gymnasium that had been built with MAPS for Kids money only three years ago.
The response from parents at Gatewood revealed an equal measure of anger at both the Oklahoma Legislature and OKCPS administration for the plan.
As parents lined up and spoke they angrily denounced the Legislature for refusing to adequately fund public schools.
They also passionately spoke out against Lora’s plan to close schools as a solution to the budget crisis, insisting that there are other ways of saving the $1.5 million Lora thinks the district will need from the closures.
“It’s a failure of the state Legislature to adequately fund our public school systems and not create a tax structure that is benevolent and profitable for the state,” said Lance Schmitz whose son will go to Gatewood in pre-school next year if the district keeps it open.
When asked if he thought the tax cuts of the last 10 years had yielded the promised economic prosperity, he said, “God no!”
“It’s the lie of Trickle-down economics. We are in a race to beat Kansas to the bottom,” said Schmitz.
Shari Gately is a teacher at Putnam City West High School, but she and her family live in the Gatewood neighborhood “because we wanted our children to grow up in a diverse environment.”
“You’ve heard our superintendent talk about figuring it out,” Gately angrily told the crowd when it was her turn to speak. “It’s time to quit trying to figure it out and make our legislators fund our schools!”
Some in the crowd stood and cheered.
Alta Gleason is raising her grandchildren. They live a short walk from Gatewood.
She told Free Press that she thinks both the “board of education” and [Oklahoma Governor] “Mary Fallin” are to blame for the uncertainty Gatewood is facing.
Gleason said that just achieving a larger school through consolidation does not take into account “what it does to the children.”
“God’s big, but big isn’t always god,” said Gleason.
An equally passionate crowd of parents at David R. Lopez Community School at Edgemere filled every available space in and around the cafeteria. Some parents had to stand just outside the entry doors and listen in.
Parents there were no more agreeable than those at Gatewood to buy the presentation that Chief of Staff Rebecca Kaye. She has been giving the same presentation at each of the six forums around the district.
They lined up after the presentation and raised similar concerns about why closing effective schools could be a good solution to the financial problems of the district.
Berry Russell is helping his daughter raise his grandchildren and he said that his two grandsons “love it here.”
“I know what kind of children I have,” Russell told Free Press. “I don’t have the smartest kids in the bunch, but I know when they come home with those kinds of grades, it’s some kind of good going on.”
DeLanie Brewer talked with Free Press before her public response and said she thinks Edgemere is “awesome.”
She said that she is especially disappointed the district is closing down the five-year pilot community school after only three years. She believes there is no other kind of school in the city.
“It’s the best kept secret in Oklahoma City,” said Brewer. “It’s a gem. And to cut this program would be a travesty to the school system.”
Lora has been informing patrons at the forums that she will make a formal proposal at a special board meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
She wants the board to make a final decision by April 10 so that arrangements can be made on employment contracts for the next year.