New research by a UCO professor could fuel new calls for school consolidation in Oklahoma as the state lawmakers get ready to head back to the capitol for next month.
Lawmakers propose consolidation year after year as a way to save Oklahoma taxpayers money. But News On 6's Dave Davis found out our state's smallest districts say they have more to offer students than people realize.
Megan Helm is one of 50 staff members at Woodall Schools, a K-8 district of about 500 students tucked in the scenic Ozark foothills near Tahlequah. After moving from California, Megan began teaching science there, a job she later found out is pretty elusive.
"They're impressed, and they tell me how blessed you are to work at Woodall. And that they know people who have waited for years who have waited to get in at Woodall," said Helm.
Superintendent Linda Clinkenbeard believes the numbers speak for themselves. She said Woodall retained 32 out of 33 teachers from last school year, and she says about half of her students' families live in other districts but request transfers to Woodall.
But she said despite her small town's school success story, the threat of consolidating is constantly in the back of their minds.
"Of course we are concerned, and our parents are concerned," said Clinkenbeard.
Several consolidation bills were proposed but failed last session at the state capitol, as lawmakers tried to figure out ways to increase education funding during our state's historic school shutdown. Senate education committee chairman Gary Stanislawski said he's against closing school districts.
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"But if we're talking about reducing administration and sharing more administrators, I think that is something that's very realistic," said Stanislawski.
Former elementary teacher and current dean of UCO's college of education, Doctor Jim Machell recently wrote a report that estimates consolidating districts could save the state $27 million in superintendent salaries per year.
"I knew we had about 500 some odd school districts in the state. What I did not know is that we are 1 of 5 states that serve approximately the same number of students," said Machell.
He found that Utah, Kentucky, Alabama, and Louisiana have similar student populations as Oklahoma's. Those Four states average 189 school districts each while Oklahoma has 548.
"We shouldn't just rely on asking taxpayers to pay more taxes to increase funding for schools. We should also be serious about trying to run schools as efficiently as we can," said Machell.
Dr. Machell's report mentions, many times, the impact that consolidation would have on rural communities like Woodall. At Woodall Schools, the Wildcat pride is fierce.
The delicate balance between school pride and saving valuable taxpayer dollars are at the heart of the consolidation debate. But no matter which side you're on lawmakers and educators alike say they're focused on what's best for the children in Oklahoma classrooms.
"Can we do a better job for students by having a little bit larger school district, which means there could be more course offerings, more AP courses, more specialized courses for students that, right now, a smaller school cannot offer," Stanislawski said.
"Nothing will ever replace or can take the place of the relationships that we can build with our families," said Clinkenbeard. "Is it the best thing for students? That's the question that, whether it be the board of education or legislators, need to ask.”