Seeking solutions Educators talk about coping with limited resources

Ada Junior High Principal Ronny Johns speaks at an Oklahoma Education Association roundtable discussion Thursday at the Pontotoc Technology Center.

Ada Junior High School has lost 13 staffers over the past three years, including a counselor who retired and was not replaced.

Reductions in staffing have affected class sizes at the school and created more stress for the employees who remain, Principal Ronny Johns said.

“Where we are with our demographics in Ada, we see more and more students who need help,” he said. “So it puts a lot of stress on the counselors, just in the fact that they’re busy with the students, which is where they need to be busy. That’s what they need to be doing.

“So then after school or before school, that’s when they’re trying to do the rest of their IEP testing and, that kind of thing. It’s stress — major stress.”

Johns and other educators talked about how the state’s budget woes are affecting public schools during a roundtable discussion Thursday at the Pontotoc Technology Center. The state’s largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, hosted the discussion.

OEA officials are conducting a listening tour of the state this fall, collecting educators’ stories about how they are coping with fewer resources. The OEA will share those stories with lawmakers in hopes of persuading them to provide more money for public schools, grant pay raises for teachers and shore up funding for essential state services.

‘Cutting into

the muscle’

School districts have moved past minor budget adjustments and are cutting spending on essential programs to make ends meet, said Allen Public Schools Superintendent Bill Caruthers.

“We’re way beyond the fat, and we’re kind of into the muscle and we’re getting down into the bone just a little bit,” he said. “It’s going to start hurting.”

Caruthers said the budget crunch has forced school districts to explore ways to make the most of their limited resources.

Finding

more revenue

The Oklahoma Education Association is calling on lawmakers to approve a $10,000 pay raise for teachers and a $5,000 raise for education support professionals. Those raises would cost about $740 million over three years, according to the organization.

The OEA is also asking lawmakers to provide an additional $200 million for public schools over three years and give retired state workers a 5 percent cost-of-living increase. The organization says the state could fund the cost-of-living increase through the pension system without harming those funds or requiring lawmakers to find new money.

In addition, the OEA wants the Legislature to fully staff state agencies and give employees a $7,500 pay raise, which would cost about $500 million over three years.

Earlier this year, the OEA joined other education-related organizations and social service agencies to form the Save Our State Coalition. The coalition produced a budget proposal aimed at eliminating Oklahoma’s current deficit, avoiding additional spending cuts and investing in the state’s top priorities.

The proposal also urged lawmakers to look beyond the current crisis, adopt structural budget reforms and take steps to avoid future shortfalls.

Lawmakers must find ways to generate extra money for state coffers instead of simply cutting spending on essential services, said OEA Vice President Katherine Bishop,

“I’ve heard clearly today it is not a spending problem,” she said. “It is backed up by data. It’s not a spending problem; it’s a revenue problem.”

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Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.