Thousands of teachers, students, parents, and administrators stood along streets and traveled to Oklahoma City on Monday in the cold drizzle holding signs asking for better funding for education and teacher and support staff pay raises.
MIAMI – As things progressed in Oklahoma's legislature, local school teachers and districts reacted and responded with support and joined participation in the massive statewide teacher walkout.
Miami, Commerce, Fairland, Quapaw, and Wyandotte district school boards and superintendents have now announced school closure through Wednesday, April 4 of this week, with tentative plans of returning to class on Thursday, April 5.
Originally these districts planned to close school on Monday only in order to allow teachers to attend an 'Advocacy Day' and thank legislators for their work. As issues developed most of the Ottawa County districts have now gone back to the table and added two more days of closure to the school week as of press time.
Several of these local school districts' school boards initially approved at least 10 days of school closure if needed.
Welch Schools district closed school on Monday, April 2 and planned to return to class Tuesday, April 3.
Afton Schools were scheduled to be in session Monday but later decided to close and return on Tuesday and stay in session through Friday.
In a letter sent out late in the evening on March 31 after meeting again with Miami teachers and the school board to Miami Public Schools parents and the community, Miami Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Hogan wrote, “It has been a crazy, hectic and stressful last few weeks, to say the least. Earlier this week it looked like we had avoided a walkout. It appeared our state legislature had passed legislation to provide pay raises for support and certified staff, as well as restoring a portion of funding cut in previous years. However, just 72 hours later they (legislature) began dismantling the historic work they had just accomplished by repealing some of the revenue bills. Now, public schools and other core services are facing up to a $170 million hole in funding. This means more cuts to schools and other state agencies.”
After receiving feedback from teachers on the Oklahoma State Senate's passage last week of House Bill 1010xx for a tax plan for funding of $447 million for teacher pay raises and learning more details, many teachers and staff became concerned about the legislators' commitment to fund public education.
A special session and a vote of the Oklahoma Legislature of 79 to 19 passed House Bill 1010xx then approved by the Senate on Wednesday night, March 28, raising state taxes for the first time in legislative history in 28 years.
The Oklahoma House of Representatives passed the Bill late Monday, March 26, which created revenue through several tax raises. The special version of House Bill 1010xx then sent on and passed by the Oklahoma Senate on Wednesday night, March 28, by a bi-partisan 36 to 10 vote, receiving the three-fourths majority needed, adds 3 cents per gallon tax on gasoline, 6 cents per gallon on diesel, and a one dollar tax on cigarettes.
The House GOP’s proposal adds a 5 percent tax on both existing and new Oklahoma oil and gas wells, a taxation rate before highly opposed by many House Republicans and advocates for the energy industry.
The oil and gas tax will increase to 7 percent after the first 36 months of production.
The hotel/motel tax portion of the revenue plan was estimated to generate $50.4 million annually and provide $46.2 million for appropriations in the FY19 budget but was later repealed by the Senate. Some lawmakers have expressed concern on how the hotel/motel tax would have impacted businesses in the state and the plan is to replace the lost occupancy taxes possibly through sales taxes on online purchases.
“At this point, teachers and support staff do not feel like our legislature has stayed true to their word and feel the need to further advocate for the full spending that is necessary to not only provide for pay raises, but much-needed classroom resources and supports. The message from our staff is clear. It is NOT all about a pay raise, but about protecting OUR students and providing them with the education they deserve” Hogan wrote.
Thousands of teachers, students, parents, administrators stood along streets and traveled to Oklahoma City on Monday in the cold drizzle holding signs asking for funding for education and for teacher pay raises of $10,000 per teacher and raises for support staff as well.
“I want our parents to understand that we aren't being greedy. We are doing this for our students of Commerce so they have textbooks that are up to date, technology, and other classroom materials to better prepare them and for our support personnel,” Commerce First grade teacher Holli Hayes said while picketing in Commerce.
The House Bill 1010xx plan approved by the Oklahoma Senate on March 28 enacts funding of teacher raises of $5,000 to $8,300 per teacher based on years of experience and level of education.
Local teachers carried signs asking for support with various slogans such as, “Our students are our future, fund education,” “When we stand for ourselves, we stand for our students,” and “You can't put students first if you put our teachers last!”
“It's way overdue. Our legislators need to put a priority on our students and classroom funding," Commerce Middle School Principal Jack Kelly said at the Commerce rally.
Local students joined the teacher and parent ranks as well carrying signs in support of teachers and education funding reading similar sentiments, such as, “My textbooks are older than me,” and “They walk for me.”
Hogan said closing Miami's schools from April 2 through April 4 will provide the district's employees the opportunity to emphasize the need for a long-term commitment to supporting Miami's students and the state's students.
“It is our hope the legislature will do the right thing for our students,” Hogan said.
Originally when facing a possible 10-day walkout the district made contingency plans for student supervision and nutritional needs.
“Now, the situation has changed, as a majority of our support staff has indicated they will walk out as well until the legislature addresses these funding issues,” Hogan wrote. “ Therefore, supervision will not be provided during the walkout.”
Missed days for the Miami district will be made up using two snow days left to cover April 2 and 3, and Friday, April 28 will now be added as a school make-up day for April 4.
Hogan provided the following schedule should the walkout be extended beyond Wednesday, April 4. Make-up days will be May 5, May 12, May 17 and May 18 if needed. Lastly, Miami Public Schools will add minutes if necessary to the remaining school days to try to avoid extending the school year.
“MPS firmly believes that we don't want our children's educational and extra-curricular experience to be punished any further by the inaction of the legislature,” Hogan wrote.
All Miami extra-curricular activities will continue, as will ACT testing scheduled April 3.
Breakfast and lunch will be offered free of charge to all Miami students during the walkout at Nichols Upper Elementary School.
“Beginning Wednesday, April 4, we will evaluate the situation on a daily basis and notify the public by 3 p.m. each day of the district's plans for the following day. When we are able to staff buildings at a level that will provide appropriate supervision for our students, we will resume daily operations. Thank you for your understanding and valued support as we continue in our efforts to provide the best for the students of Miami,” Hogan wrote.
Oklahoma House of Representatives Democrats released a statement through their communications and public affairs office to the press Monday after the day's floor session.
“Today, House Democrats stood with teachers and attempted several procedural maneuvers to bring legislation to the House floor that would provide sustainable long-term funding to education. Unfortunately, all but two Republicans voted not to hear the legislation that would have ended the capital gains tax exemption, which has cost Oklahoma more than $460 million over the course of five years and has shown a return investment of just $9 million,” the statement reads.
The House Democrats' statement went on,“This exemption disproportionally benefits wealthy individuals at the expense of Oklahoma’s education system and other core services. All 28 House Democrats remain ready to repeal this unnecessary burden on Oklahomans. We are calling on our friends across the aisle to do as the Senate has done and join us in ending this exemption so that teachers can go back to the classroom knowing that funding is on the way.”
Governor Mary Fallin issued the following statement today on the teacher rally at the state Capitol:
“I appreciate teachers coming to the Capitol today to talk with their elected officials. During the past three years, I have called for an increase in teacher salaries. I was very proud to join with leaders of both parties to sign the largest teacher pay increase in Oklahoma’s history. This legislation will provide an average teacher pay raise of $6,000 to our teachers. That is a 16 percent average pay increase for teachers. An additional $50 million was allocated for the state aid funding formula and textbooks. In total, this represents a 19.74 percent increase in the appropriations for public schools.
“Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows. Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible. We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state such as corrections and health and human services as we continue to consider additional education funding measures. I look forward to continuing to talk with legislative leaders and teachers as we forge a positive pathway forward for education.”
House Speaker Charles McCall thanked teachers, administrators, students and school support staff who visited the Capitol today and expressed their concerns and opinions on education funding. Speaker McCall also thanked House Democrats, the Senate and Gov. Mary Fallin for their efforts to compromise and pass both the largest teacher pay increase and the largest common education budget in state history.
“Our teachers and school staff are very important for the future of our state, not only for the education of our children but also for the health of our economy,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “I appreciate their willingness to visit the Capitol and talk directly with their elected lawmakers. We can better serve our constituents when we hear from them. Our teachers do invaluable work, and the House has recognized that by passing a significant pay increase that begins to move teacher pay in the right direction. We should be doing all that we can to encourage veteran teachers to stay and young teachers to enter the profession, and we certainly need to find ways to invest even more into the classrooms where it can help improve student outcomes.
"What we have accomplished for our teachers and schools is historic, but it shouldn't be. Funding public education appropriately and paying teachers competitively should be a normal occurrence. The House will continue working for additional funding for education because our children's future is always worth the investment."
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.