Public school funding and teacher raises continue to be the biggest issues state educators face in the new year.
Several local superintendents voiced their frustrations regarding the ongoing inability of Oklahoma’s lawmakers to pass a budget plan to fund a teacher pay raise.
A failed legislature measure in November would have provided a $3,000 annual pay increase in public school teacher pay. Gov. Mary Fallin called legislators back into a second special session on Dec. 18, where she made specific recommendations on how to balance the budget while also providing teacher raises.
Pawhuska Public Schools Superintendent Janet Neufeld believes that concerned citizens have the power to create change by voting for supporters of public education in the next election cycle.
“There’s some belief systems that have been hard on public education, and I think those challenges are looming, but our country was founded on a constitution that believes every child should have the same education and I’m certainly a proponent of that,” said Neufeld.
“I ask people to have the courage to face these challenges and support people who want to put more resource in the classroom.”
Bartlesville Public School Superintendent Chuck McCauley described the inaction as frustrating and worrisome.
“I’m very concerned about the lack of progress they’ve made,” said McCauley. “It’s frustrating when you hear people talk about how that it’s not a problem, because frankly it is.”
Rick Peters, superintendent at Caney Valley Public Schools, said he hopes that lawmakers will reach a solution that makes Oklahoma teacher salaries reasonably competitive with surrounding states.
“That would help stop the bleeding for our teacher shortage, which directly affects our kids,” said Peters.
All three superintendents remain hopeful that 2018 will be the year for positive action on public education funding.
“I’m hopeful, optimistic and I’m educator and so I’m hoping that something will happen at the state level but it’s just frustrating when there are opportunities to reach a compromise and it doesn’t happen,” said McCauley.
Peters is urging lawmakers to do the “right thing.”
“Our teachers are overwhelmed. They feel neglected, but they’re hopeful. We’re all hopeful,” he said. “We have to live in the positive and hope our legislators will do the right thing and take care of our teachers and take care of our kids.”
Schools across Oklahoma — urban, suburban and rural — have been forced to navigate nearly a decade of shrinking per-pupil funding and low teacher pay that has driven many educators out of state or out of the profession.
But in many of the state’s rural public schools, the funding struggles create unique challenges, according to Neufeld.
“Rural communities face special challenges because the teaching shortage will hit us harder and longer because of the access of people wanting to live in our communities,” she said.
“We try really hard to support our faculty in ways the state is not. We try to make sure they have current technology, good schedules, clean facilities and classrooms where they can teach and feel supported.”
Statewide, Oklahoma faces a scarcity of qualified teachers. In September around 1,700 emergency teaching certifications were approved by Oklahoma’s board of education for the 2017-18 academic year. The certifications allow teachers to be employed prior to completing education or training requirements.
McCauley said that the school district has 12 individuals employed with emergency certifications due to the teacher shortage and shrinking school budget.
“The pool of applicants has drastically changed and we’re hiring people right now that frankly we wouldn’t have interviewed 10 years ago,” he said.
“We’ve outsourced our custodial services, our after-school care and our lawn care services to lower our administrative costs and we’ve cut our administrative staff to the bone to make sure all of the funding is going where it needs to be – which is in the classroom,” he said.
He added that effective teachers are the most important factor in student achievement. He expressed his appreciation for various organizations and groups that support local schools, including Bartlesville Education Promise and the Bartlesville Public Schools Foundation.
“We’re working really hard to work with our teachers and making sure we have a culture in which they want to work, but we really need some help to pay them some more,” said McCauley.
“Education is one of those core services,” he said. “I understand that the state has challenges budgetwise like the state health department, the prisons and roads. All of these are core services that should be adequately funded, but so should education.”