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Oklahoma Educators Face Real Challenges As School Year Approaches

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With Oklahoma's schools dealing with $200 million less than what was appropriated last year, school districts across the state said class sizes will be larger, which has some districts worried about managing the higher student-to-teacher ratio. With Oklahoma's schools dealing with $200 million less than what was appropriated last year, school districts across the state said class sizes will be larger, which has some districts worried about managing the higher student-to-teacher ratio.
Many districts said they will have to cut back on things such as field trips and other activities that require transportation. Many districts said they will have to cut back on things such as field trips and other activities that require transportation.

By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the state board of education approved a much-depleted education budget last month, State Schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett warned that students would "lose a lot" this coming school year.

Garrett didn't offer any specifics, but the Oklahoma Impact Team has learned that her statement wasn't hyperbole.

The $2.38 billion appropriated by the legislature to common education for FY 2011 is almost $200 million less than what was appropriated last year -- a 7.6 percent cut. There are varying estimates as to the corresponding reduction in teachers, with the teachers union suggesting the number could be as many as 5,000. Whatever the number actually is, there's broad agreement that the reduction will be felt in classrooms across the state.

See the initial FY11 State Aid allocations for all 527 school districts in the state

"With fewer staff, there's no way around class sizes going up," said Stacey Vernon, principal of Edison Preparatory School, a combination middle and high school in the Tulsa School District.

Tulsa Public Schools saw its state funding cut $12 million, prompting administrators to cut 226 teaching positions -- 20 of them at Edison alone.

Vernon said that will translate to five, maybe even 10, more kids per class this year.

"Some classes, you've previously been able to keep at a low level -- 21, 22 kids," Vernon said. "I think you're probably looking at 30 kids now."

The tight budget is also forcing Vernon to eliminate some non-essential, but popular courses, like driver's ed, and also cut back on field trips and other activities that require transportation. Sending the band to away football games is no longer a certainty.

"Everybody knows it's nice to have them there," Vernon said. "Everybody wants them there, but it's a huge expense."

The Oklahoma City School District, now the largest in the state, has cut 111 teaching jobs -- not as many as Tulsa, but enough to produce a similar result.

"Right now, it looks like some of our classes are going to be larger," said Leonard Wright, principal of John Marshall High School.

Wright, a veteran administrator from Texas, said he's been through these cost-cutting phases before in his career and is confident the system will endure and learning will occur, but he admitted it will have to be with fewer frills. More than likely, he said, he'll authorize fewer field trips this year, and things like new textbooks and new uniforms may not happen at all.

The biggest challenge for him, though, will be managing the higher student-to-teacher ratio.

"I think with a little massaging, with talking to teachers about classroom management and discipline management, they'll still be able to effectively deliver instruction on a daily basis," " Wright said.

Certainly that's what parents are hoping.

"I can tell you the concerns I've heard from other parents," stated Oklahoma State PTA president Sheila Groves.

Groves heard from dozens of parents last week at the annual PTA convention in Tulsa. Across the state, in big districts and small, she said, parents are worried that these cuts will undermine the quality of education in their children's schools.

"I think anytime you are going to increase class sizes and cut out extra-curricular activities and those type of issues, absolutely, the quality of education is going to go down," Groves said.

Groves, who has two children of her own in secondary school, also worries that pressure on parents to donate supplies and services is going to go up, at a time when many can't afford it.

It's frustrating, she said, because this could have been avoided.

"I believe that there is money out there; it's just that education is not a priority in Oklahoma, and it should be," Groves said.

Educators are trying to stay positive. They said they believe they can weather the storm this year; it's next year that really worries them.

"We've taken all of the fat out of our operation, and now we're left with muscle and connective tissue," said Oklahoma City Schools Superintendent Karl Springer.

Springer said administrators are doing everything they can to minimize the impact of the budget cuts on students, and he's optimistic schools will be able to navigate the rough seas this year, provided they're not forced to make additional cuts in midstream.

The bigger concern, Springer said, is the possibility that economic conditions don't improve and districts are hit with a similar reduction in funding next year.

"We're talking about some very ugly looking situations," Springer said.

Springer said in such a scenario, he would not be surprised to see class sizes reach 35 or more, and would expect many smaller school districts to actually close their schools and annex to other districts. It's already happened in five districts this year.

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