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While many teachers in Oklahoma went on strike for better pay and education funding this week, most schools in the Herald-Leader's coverage area stayed open on Monday and Tuesday.

Hundreds of teachers from across the state converged on the capitol building in Oklahoma City on Monday and Tuesday to protest cuts to the state's education budget over the past decade, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday afternoon. The state's three largest districts -- Oklahoma City, Edmond and Tulsa -- remained closed on Tuesday, the report stated.

Oklahoma ranked 47th among states in public school revenue per student and 49th for teacher pay before Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill last week that would raise teachers pay an average of $6,100, the Associated Press reported. However, the bill does not increase school funding in other areas, which has been cut more than 28 percent over the past decade.

Classes were in session at schools on Monday in Kansas, Colcord and Watts, although all three school boards passed resolutions supporting teacher's efforts to increase education funding and allowing superintendents to close schools for up to 25 days for the strike.

The Oaks School District could not be reached by phone.

The Westville School District canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday, according to the district website, www.westville.k12.ok.us. Breakfast and lunch were still served at the school and the ACT test for juniors proceeded as planned, the website stated. Westville School District could not be reached by phone.

The Moseley Public School, which serves about 240 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, was closed on Monday so that its 25 teachers and support staff members could attend the strike in Oklahoma City, according to Superintendent Charlene Carter. However, school was back in session on Tuesday, she said.

The Moseley School Board passed a resolution supporting teachers to go on strike on Monday, then to return to school on Tuesday so school could resume. The board did, however, support sending a delegation of three to four teachers each day the strike continued.

Carter explained that teachers are concerned because education funding keeps leaving Oklahoma every year and that educators want to have their voices heard on the measure. She pointed out that education funding should be a priority because "children are our future."

"The funding is way, way below what it should be for Oklahoma and we want to support our fellow teachers, we want to support education in Oklahoma," she said.

Moseley Schools stayed open during the rest of the week because many of the rural children it serves don't have access to daycare, she explained.

"We would ask that our parents and community members help support this drive and let this legislature know that education should be at the forefront of our funding priorities," she said.

Jim Burgess, superintendent of Kansas (Okla.) Schools, said a few teachers in his district attended the protest on Monday but that schools in the district remained open.

Burgess said he thinks teachers are very appreciative of the pay raise but are concerned because the legislature hasn't put money back into operational funds.

"My personal thought is (teachers) aren't going to get a lot more than they have already got for a while. They may, but you have another group petitioning to try to repeal it," he said, referring to a petition drive to put the tax increase funding the pay raises to public vote.

Burgess pointed out that the teacher raise, which averages $6,100, is the largest in Oklahoma history. However, the legislators did nothing about the 28 percent budget cuts over the past decade, he said.

"My first year, salaries were about 70 percent of the budget, now they are 90 percent of the budget. ... What little bit of money we have (for operating expenses) has been eroded," he said.

"It's bound to impact the kids a little," Burgess said. "We are pretty much able to still do what we need to do."

One way Kansas Schools have been able to cut costs is to hire fewer teachers. Burgess estimated that the district probably needs four or five more teachers. The district keeps class sizes under 20 students at the elementary school level, but classes at the middle and high school level have as many as 30 students or more, he said.

Lisa Weaver, superintendent of the Watts School District, said teachers in her district were given the opportunity to join the protest but opted not to. She said that more than 90 percent of the school's staff, which includes 42 teachers and 24 support staff members, voted to have school on Monday.

Weaver explained that teachers in her school felt the actions taken by the legislature and the governor last week showed progress. She also pointed out that this is the school's testing week and skipping state tests could jeopardize Federal funding.

"We felt like it was progress, like they are making an effort," Weaver said. "It's not enough on the school funding end by any means, but we know that it's not going to be solved in one session or overnight."

Bud Simmons, superintendent of Colcord Schools, said teachers in his district felt the legislature's historic pay raises for teachers last week was a step in the right direction. None of the teachers in the district chose to participate in the strike.

Simmons said that teachers told him that education funding, rather than pay raises, was the biggest issue on their minds.

"Our teachers maintained the pay raise wasn't the deal-breaker, it was having respect as professionals," he said.

Simmons said that concerns about state testing week were also a factor in Colcord teachers' decision not to join the protest.

Colcord Schools have kept class sizes small and instead reduced their budget by purchasing second-hand school buses and technology from larger districts such as Edmond and Tulsa for pennies on the dollar, he said.

Low teacher pay has made it difficult for border schools like Colcord to compete when hiring teachers, Simmons said. A few years ago, he had 12 to 15 applicants for every open teaching position. Last year the number dropped to five or six and this year there were only one or two applications for every position.

Since the news of the raise, several Arkansas teachers who live in Oklahoma have already called Simmons and asked about getting jobs in his district, he said.

"We went from 49th (in teacher pay nationally) to second regionally, that's a big deal, there is no question," Simmons said.

General News on 04/04/2018

Print Headline: Local Oklahoma schools remain open during teacher's strike

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