Tulsa Dad Talks TPS: “How to Create a Zombie School District”

When I was doing some cleaning last weekend, I came across a fifth-grade booklet that my youngest daughter, Mary, (who is now 28) created as an end-of-year project. First, NEVER throw away anything your kid does that involves a narrative of life at a certain age – especially if it’s illustrated. Many years later, like me, you’ll be laughing out loud and texting images of the book to your kid.

What made me sad is that Mary’s class sizes were small throughout elementary school. She had a gym teacher, an art teacher and a music teacher in addition to a librarian, counselor and full-time aids in each class. My, how things have changed. Oklahoma schools have always been underfunded, but in the past couple of years, things have taken an ugly turn. The legislature will probably vote to increase scholarship tax credits, which are ostensibly vouchers.

Don’t get me wrong. Tulsa has some amazing private schools, but they can’t take everybody like public schools do. They don’t have to follow state and federal regulations like public schools (nor do they want to, which is why they’re private), and they may or may not have services for students with special needs. These “scholarships” also don’t cover all of the tuition and other costs of a private school education, so who are they really helping?

And then there’s the whole thing about the constitutional separation of church and state. Full disclosure, I’m on the governing body of my church, so I’m not anti-religion. But the reason religions are still robust in America is because we DON’T have state-sponsored churches or a national religion. People have the freedom to choose. Should tax dollars be going to Christian, Muslim, Jewish or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster schools?

If my New Year’s wish comes true, the Oklahoma Legislature will not fritter away my tax dollars, but will focus on properly funding public education for all children.

In Tulsa, things took an even uglier turn at the school board meeting on Tuesday, the one where the board voted on Superintendent Gist’s recommendations to close four elementary schools to save money. There were some impassioned speeches. I found it interesting that someone talked about how the community and civic leaders came into Greenwood Leadership Academy (GLA) to paint and socialize and honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day. GLA is a “partnership” school that shares space with Academy Central, which the board voted to close so it could be “absorbed” by GLA.

Why aren’t civic and community leaders visiting Academy Central or Wright or any of the other schools that are closing or struggling? Where’s the TPS administrative involvement in those schools? I doubt that Dr. King would want to be associated with crushing public education for all children. Public schools are arguably the foundation of a democracy.

A Tulsa Public Schools dad, whose opinion piece was published on author and Research Professor of Education at NYU Diane Ravitch’s blog, pulls back the camera and focuses on the bigger picture of how the current TPS administration has created its own budget crisis and how philanthropic foundations have been complicit in decimating public schools. He asked that the piece be published anonymously because he feared there would be retribution toward his children. (I don’t understand a district administration that seeks to actively curtail dissenting views. That, alone, speaks volumes.) I have spoken with this dad, and know that he is a Tulsa Public School parent who has spent countless hours volunteering in the schools and has come to these observations through thoughtful involvement and research.

Here is a link to the original publication, https://dianeravitch.net/2020/01/24/oklahoma-how-to-disrupt-and-demoralize-a-school-distruct/but I’ve also included it in its entirety here:

How To Create A Zombie Public School District And What That Means For Tulsa Parents

Last week at the Tulsa Public Schools board meeting, Superintendent Deborah Gist and her administration laid out part of their plan to resolve a questionable $20 million budget deficit for the 2020-21 school year due to a declining enrollment.  Most of the attention has been focused on the four school closings (actually five), and little attention has been made of the other hits that are occurring.

Last fall, the administration held so-called community meetings to take input on what parents, teachers and students thought was most important for the district. These meetings mirrored the process in 2016 when the district was reeling from nearly a decade of budget cuts to education from the state. Both in 2016 and for the most recent cuts, the district listed identical items to absorb the loss, and asked people at community meetings to prioritize what they felt was important to save from cuts. The surveys included the following recommendations: reduce transportation by changing bell times; reduce costs through efficient use of buildings and operations; reduce central office services; increase class sizes; provide less professional development; reduce athletics and on and on.

The 2016 budget reduction outcome results were the following: Close three elementary schools and consolidate them into a fourth, consolidate a middle school and high school, eliminate over 142 teaching positions, increase class sizes, reduce custodial services and a create a supposed $1M savings in district office reorganization, among other items.

The survey results from the community meetings for this year’s (2020-21) budget reduction showed that respondents were least willing to: reduce teacher compensation; increase class sizes;reduce social emotional learning and supports. Respondents were most willing to save money in the following areas: change student transportation and bell times; reduce teacher leadership opportunities; provide more efficient building utilization and district office services.

After collecting and ostensibly reviewing the community survey results, the district recommendations for the 2020-21 school year were to: reduce district office services ($13-14 million); close and consolidate schools ($2-3Million); and change the elementary staffing plan, i.e. increase class sizes ($3 million)

Wait a minute. Didn’t the community just say they were least willing to increase class sizes?  Not only is Superintendent Gist recommending increasing the class size, she is also calculating it based on SITE totals rather than GRADE level totals.  What does this mean?  

Say you have a school with 400 students and one grade level has 66 students. A 24/1 ratio gets you 2.75 allocations or 3 allocations. Do this for every grade and you end up being allocated 18 teachers based on grade level counts. However, when teachers are allocated to schools based on the school total rather than the grade level total, a school with 400 students at the site will be allocated only 17 teachers (16.66).  So who gets the extra-large class? Principals are normally reluctant to have large classrooms, so they look to cut other allocations such as art teachers, music teachers, librarians, councilors, gifted & talented teachers and on and on.

And what does “office services” mean? No more school supplies? No more copies?  No more textbooks? Reducing social and emotional services?  So far, the district administration has not shared what “reducing district office services” means.

While TPS was having a “budget crisis” in 2016, what nobody was taking notice of at that time was the district’s declining enrollment (which puts the most pressure on the budget) at the same time that charter schools were quickly expanding. In 2015, enrollment in TPS stood at 39,451 and enrollment in charter schools stood at 1402. In 2019-20, enrollment in TPS is 35,390, a decline of nearly 10%, and enrollment in charters stands at 3,119, a 120% increase.  In addition, in December of 2018, the TPS Board approved the expansion of an additional 875 seats for charter schools.

At the same time TPS is scheduled to close four elementary schools, the district is also poised to expand a so-called “partnership” school called Greenwood Leadership Academy (GLA).

The Founder and Chairman is Dr. Ray Owens, Pastor of the MET Church and GLA was supported by the usual charter-loving foundations and organizations: George Kaiser Family Foundation, Schusterman, Zarrow, Walton, Loebeck/Taylor and the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center.  

Greenwood Leadership Academy has been a train wreck since it opened in 2017.

In May of 2018: “Greenwood Leadership Academy staff member no longer employed after allegedly leaving student in locker.”  

A few months later, the principal who was a part of the Tulsa TFA cohort of 2013, unexpectedly resigned:  

TPS partner Greenwood Leadership Academy to replace principal”    “I am resigning from my role as principal because I feel led by God to do so. I am, unashamedly, a man of faith,” Asamoa-Caesar.

But, fear not, he landed at 36 Degrees North, an entrepreneurial incubation organization, also supported by George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Loebeck/Taylor Foundation. Asamoa-Caesar has now decided to run for congress.

Despite GLA’s questionable past, an article in the Tulsa World reported on the intent of the TPS administration to expand GLA. “Tulsa school board to vote on accelerating Academy Central Elementary’s conversion into Greenwood Leadership Academy”  

Tulsa School Board Member Jennettie Marshall, district 3, expressed concern about closing a public school to expand Greenwood Leadership Academy, a partnership school, which, arguably, is a failing school.

The article states: “Marshall said she’d rather vote on the proposal after the final testing cycle is completed and noted the board typically doesn’t vote to renew GLA until the summer. Her concern stems from a history of underwhelming proficiency rates and disciplinary issues at the school.

She cited a recent data report showing a steep decline in third-grade proficiency. The report states 6% of GLA’s original student cohort, who now are in third grade, were proficient in math during the fall semester, compared to 31% in fall 2018. Their reading proficiency also declined from 27% to 13% during that time.”

That’s right, Gist is recommending that those same third graders now enter the fourth and fifth grades under this “partnership” school. But what isn’t mentioned is that TPS promised the North Tulsa Community Task Force a moratorium on its school closures. Greenwood Leadership Academy is co-located in Academy Central Elementary’s building. Apparently TPS doesn’t consider a school closed if they transfer all the students out of it and let a privately run “partnership” school take over the building. Why not allow Academy Central Elementary to “absorb” GLA, and then work to improve Academy Central Elementary?  

To further complicate the matter, TPS School Board Vice President Suzanne Schreiber works for the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF)/Tulsa Community Foundation.  One would think if your boss was a major donor to the school (GLA) that is before the board for approval (or for that matter any of the other seven charter schools that have received GKFFdonations), you would have some sort of conflict of interest. Schreiber spoke in support of GLA at the January school board meeting:

These are our partners,” Schreiber said. “We need to trust and support them. We’ve seen really robust data and a trajectory going (upward). So I support this recommendation. I’m excited for Greenwood to accelerate to fifth grade, and I just expect that they’re not going to do anything but continue to provide a high-quality education for our kids.”

Let’s rewind:  

5.56% of GLA’s third graders are proficient in math – that’s three students out of 53.  THREE!

13.21% of GLA third graders are proficient in reading.  That makes 7 students.

Who in their right mind thinks that is providing a high-quality education and an upward trajectory?

Shouldn’t the Board Member Schreiber be trusting and supporting the public school, Academy Central Elementary, in the community she works for, or is she working on the school board for GKFF? Where is her first responsibility?

In addition, school board member Jania Wester works for Community in Schools and shares an office with her husband who is the Executive Director of Growing Together, a GLA partner which has also received millions of dollars from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.  No possible conflict of interest there.

And in the category of “You just can’t make this stuff up,” over the winter break Dr. Gist married Ronnie Jobe. Congratulations!   The groom is Senior Vice President and Manager – Institutional Markets for Bank of Oklahoma.  BOK is the largest bank in Oklahoma and its majority shareholder is one George Kaiser.

And speaking of transfers, what also isn’t being talked about is TPS’s new open enrollment, or as they explain it to their charter partners, “Unified Enrollment.”  This is where anyone can go down to the TPS Enrollment Center and enroll their child in any school if there is an open seat. That’s right, TPS will assist you in enrolling your student in any public school or private charter school merely for the asking as long as there are seats available.  

Do you remember at the beginning of this article when I mentioned the budget deficit was due to declining enrollment?  Does anyone else see a problem here?

To make the process even easier, TPS administrators are also recommending a re-alignment of schools so all elementary schools are configured the same.  That way if you want to leave your public school, you will fit right in to the private charter schools.

To top it off, the charter schools now need space to expand.  Where are they going to get it?  The closed school buildings of course.  And just to make sure those spaces are nice, at the end of December the TPS Board voted to spend $1.6M not for the benefit of TPS students, but to benefit the private Legacy Charter School to improve its building. Simultaneously, one of the public elementary schools slated for closure has plenty of students, but the district plans to shutter it because the building is in need of repair and that would be too costly. Maybe they want those students to move to Legacy Charter School since it’s getting a nice refurbishment.

Tulsa Collegiate Hall has its eye on Wright Elementary, one of the schools slated to close at the end of this year.  Crossover Preparatory Academy wants the Gilcrease school building, which was recently closed in north Tulsa.    Crossover Preparatory Academy was recently visited by governor Kevin Stitt to tout the so-called benefits of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act which primarily grants scholarships to Christian schools .  Tulsa Honor Academy has reached out to the Walton Foundation for a $1 million donation to apparently go at it alone through Level Field Partners.  Does anyone else see a transfer of public dollars to private schools and real estate LLC’s in the future?

Nobody is talking about the costs associated with closing the schools. It isn’t zero. Nobody is talking about what an utter nightmare it is going to be to bus the students who under open enrollment can supposedly go to any school, with district transportation provided. TPS has enough problems trying to get students to school on time, now imagine buses taking any student to any school.

This last Friday it was announced that employees had been notified of the intent to eliminate their positions.  While Gist repeatedly assured the community that her staff would do everything they could to transfer teachers to other schools within the district once the schools were closed, the process is the equivalent of being fired and then having to re-apply for a job as if you had never been with the district.  I can only imagine the high morale of employees who have that to endure.

In five years, Superintendent Gist’s merry band of Broadies have closed at least eight schools, lost 10% of the enrollment, expanded charter schools by over 120%, re-aligned all the schools to make it easier for students to leave the district, helped them fill out the paperwork to do so, spent Bond dollars meant for TPS students for private charter schools and are cutting central office services while increasing class sizes.

If you’re a parent like me and are interested in saving public schools, you might want to look at two truly grassroots organizations that take no funding from reformer foundations or those who wish to privatize public schools: Network for Public Education and the Badass Teachers Association.

Addendum: The Oklahoma City School Board approved Superintendent Gist’s school closings and budget cuts.  (Diane Ravitch added the addendum and mistakenly said Oklahoma City School Board, when it should read “Tulsa Public School Board.”)


 

 

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