With the nonpartisan mayoral primary just a week away, time is running out to examine the major initiatives being bantered about by the two major candidates, Mayor Dewey Bartlett and City Councilor G.T. Bynum.
So today we’ll take a look at two of them.
Bartlett has repeatedly said he would like to put a training academy in every high school in the city. Speaking during a debate last week sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa and other organizations, the mayor said his next academy will be a banking academy.
Meanwhile, Bynum has stated he would work to reduce the time it takes to do street rehabilitation projects, thereby helping to free Tulsa of its omnipresent orange barrels.
“The reason Tulsans see the orange barrels go up and no one working on the site is because the city allows utilities scheduled windows of time to do the work they need to do. In between each of them being at the site, the project just sits there,” Bynum told The Frontier. “We can do better when it comes to scheduling that work.”
Earlier this week, the city councilor acknowledged that the task will a difficult one.
“If it was easy, someone would have already improved it,” he said. “Like much of what I am proposing, it will take hard work — but it can be done.”
Time will tell. For now, here’s a detailed look at the issues, including the potential obstacles to implementing the candidates’ proposals.
PLACING TRAINING ACADEMIES IN EVERY HIGH SCHOOL
There seems to be no debate about the importance of preparing students, especially those not headed to college, for the work force. The question, as it relates to Tulsa and the mayor’s proposal, is whether an academy is needed in every school, and if so, how would they be funded?
Public schools across the state are reeling from budget cuts imposed by the Legislature to balance the state budget. Tulsa Public Schools has had its budget reduced by nearly $3 million since January.
Bartlett says he understands this, but he told The Frontier that he believes his proposed academies could be funded by institutions like Tulsa Tech, which is in a better financial position.
Ultimately, he added, “I think it is the responsibility of public school boards — we have four of them in Tulsa — it’s their responsibility to look at a variety of options in order to educate and train students.”
In other words, that piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured out yet.
Bartlett’s campaign manager, Matt Faeth, said last week that he did not believe the mayor had spoken to TPS officials about the banking academy. But the mayor’s chief of staff, Jarred Brejcha, said Tuesday that he met with officials at Central High School on Monday to discuss placing the academy in that school.
TPS officials, meanwhile, say they’ve received no application for such a program.
But is an academy needed in every high school?
That is a complicated question without an easy answer. But this much is known: TPS already has an extensive in-house Career Tech program and joint ventures with Tulsa Tech and Tulsa Community College to provide vo-tech and college classes.
About 600 high school juniors and seniors a year enroll in TPS’s joint education program with Tulsa Tech. Students spend half of their days in their schools and half at Tulsa Tech.
Another 8,000 to 10,000 middle and high school students a year participate in TPS’s 50 Career Tech programs. That’s about half of all secondary students (grades 6-12), according to TPS.
For middle school students, the Career Tech program is all about career exploration and exposing them to different career opportunities.
The program becomes more career-specific in high school. At the Webster High School Agriculture Program, for example, students can leave high school with a certificate in horticulture or small engine repair. Tulsa Public Schools also has a STEM Program, focused on preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
When TPS doesn’t have the manpower or facilities to provide a Career Tech program, such as health sciences or welding, students can often find them at Tulsa Tech or Tulsa Community College.
In some instances, TPS can take a student only so far in his or her Career Tech training, at which point the students can complete their studies at Tulsa Tech or TCC.
TPS officials, including Superintendent Deborah Gist, meet quarterly with the Tulsa Metro Chamber, Workforce Tulsa, area employers and other Tulsa stakeholders to identify what jobs the city needs to fill.
Since taking office in late 2009, Bartlett has helped create two training academies — the Aerospace and Aviation Academy and Learning with a Wrench.
The Aviation Academy is a joint venture between Tulsa Public Schools and Tulsa Tech. The Learning with the Wrench program is a joint venture between the city of Tulsa, Union Public Schools and Tulsa Community College.
The Aviation Academy, which is open to high school juniors and seniors, began last school year with approximately 40 students, not all of whom came from Tulsa Public Schools, school officials say.
The Aviation Academy is different from other TPS/Tulsa Tech partnerships in that students spend their entire day at Tulsa Tech, where they take traditional academic courses for half the day and vo-tech classes the remainder of the day.
The Aviation Academy and Working with a Wrench programs, while open to all juniors and seniors, focus on students who may be contemplating dropping out of school because they have fallen behind or lost interest in their school work.
The Learning with a Wrench program is an internship program that gives Union High School juniors and seniors an opportunity to work with mechanics at the city’s eastside maintenance garage
Students work on heavy equipment, such as backhoes and ATVs, and other vehicles. Students have the potential to earn enough credentials to qualify them for a job at Ford Motor Company or to enroll in Tulsa Community College.
The program began in the 2014-2015 school year and graduated nine students. This year, 11 students graduated from the program, and 15 students are enrolled for next year.
The Bartlett campaign has pointed to The Academies of Nashville in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools system as an example of what the mayor has in mind.
However, that program was founded under completely different circumstances than exist in Tulsa.
Donna Gilley, director of The Academies of Nashville, said the Metropolitan Nashville School District — which serves a poor, urban community — had such a high dropout rate a decade ago that it was about to be taken over by the state.
So the school district changed course and completely overhauled its 12 high schools, changing each one into a training academy. Today, each school offers three to five training academies. That’s more than 40 different academies districtwide, and every student must enroll in one, even if he or she plans to go to high school.
“It was absolutely a culture change, trust me” Gilley said. “It took a good three to five years. Teachers didn’t want to change.”
The program is working. The school district’s graduation rate has increased from 58.2 percent in 2004 to 81.6 percent. That amounts to keeping about 12,000 students in school who would otherwise have left, had the district’s dropout rate remained at 58.2 percent.
At the same time, Gilley said, attendance is up and discipline problems down.
“What we have found is because we are teaching things people are interested in, they are coming to school,” Gilley said. “What we know is kids start misbehaving when they are bored.”
Bottom line: The mayor is correct in saying that Tulsa schools need to be preparing students for the work force, especially those students who do not plan to go to college.
But the need for a new academy in each high school is far from certain given the extensive Career Tech and vo-tech program already in place at TPS. Funding the programs could also be a problem.
Bartlett’s plan is a piecemeal one at this stage, and not one that he has been discussed in any detail with Tulsa Public Schools officials.
FIXING STREETS FASTER
This proposal is even more complicated than putting a training academy in every high school, but explaining why it’s complicated is easy: Every time the city does a major street rehabilitation project, it doesn’t just add a layer of asphalt. The utilities beneath the pavement, when necessary, are also replaced.
And guess what? The city doesn’t install electric and gas lines, or cable TV lines for that matter. So it must work with the utility companies to schedule their work before any paving begins.
Then there is this to keep in mind: The city, when necessary, replaces water, sewer and storm water lines when it does major street rehabilitation.
It’s called the Right of Way to Right of Way Program, and it’s been in effect since 1999.
It is, city officials concede, a slower process than simply paving a new road. For example, on larger projects, such as the major rehabilitation of 21st Street from Peoria Avenue to Lewis Avenue, utility companies can be working on a site for six to 18 months before city crews begin their work.
The plus side: The Right of Way to Right of Way Program saves taxpayers millions of dollars, according to the city’s Engineering Services Department.
Water line replacement projects, for example, would be about 30-40 percent more expensive if the city were doing the project independent of any road work. That’s because the city would have to pay not only to dig the hole in the road to lay the pipe, but to reconstruct the road once the pipe is installed.
Under the Right of Way to Right of Way Program, the pavement is breached only once, rather than paying to dig up and reconstruct a street every time a utility repair is needed. Cutting into a road to repair a water line or replace a utility line significantly reduces the life of a street, leading to more street repairs, city officials say.
Speeding up the process is not as simple as improving staffing levels or tightening the time frames utilities are given to do their work.
Additional staffing might lessen the workload for some city employees, but it would not do much to speed up the process, city officials say.
Engineering Services Department employees already work closely with the utilities to coordinate projects.
The process begins with the city providing right of way occupants or utility companies, such as Oklahoma Natural Gas, AT&T, AEP-PSO, Cox Communications and others with a complete list of all planned capital improvement projects and when they are expected to begin.
As the projects move forward, the city shares design plans — both preliminary and final — with all affected utilities, who then notify the city of what lines would be impacted or replaced in the work area.
Then the head-scratching begins, because scheduling utility crews isn’t simply a matter of figuring out whether a company will have crews available to work when the the city wants them to work.
The city must also consider whether more than one utility can work on a project at one time; whether the utility would have to build a separate line before removing its existing line so as to not interrupt service; whether the city’s planned work would get in the way of the utilities planned work; and myriad other issues.
This is the process the city goes through for things it knows about, and, to a certain extent, can control. Often times the unexpected can delay a project. A fiber optic line that didn’t show up on anyone’s plans appears, or the city needs to purchase a resident’s property or an easement across the property, and that resident doesn’t want to sell.
All the planning in the world may not eliminate those types of delays.
The pure volume of work is also a factor. The city is in the midst of a massive street rehabilitation program after decades of neglecting road maintenance.
There are 120 major projects under construction in the city, with nearly 400 projects in design. Over the next five years, the city will spend approximately $1.4 billion on capital improvement projects.
City officials say they are open to any suggestions that would speed up the process. But they also stress that they have established good working relationships with the utility companies that have helped ensure that the work is done as quickly and efficiently as possible. This includes taking suggestions from the utility companies on how best the city might sequence the work to keep projects moving along.
Every Monday, city engineers meet to review the utility work on every every road project underway or planned for the near future. Every other week, city engineers meet with ONG officials to check on the status of that company’s work, since the gas provider is typically the first utility in on major street rehabilitation projects. Similar progress meetings are held with other utilities.
This is in addition to the work done by a city staff of four full-time employees and project consultants that works daily with utility companies to coordinate utility replacement projects
By the way, the city doesn’t alway wait until the utilities are done with their work to begin paving a road. On larger projects, such as 21st Street, the work is sometimes done in pieces. That way the city can go behind the utilities and pave sections of the road where the utility lines have already been replaced.
The final piece of the puzzle are Tulsans themselves. The city must coordinate not only with the utility companies, but with businesses, schools, hospitals and neighborhoods to ensure that they are mitigating the headaches that come with road construction.
A good example of this will be on display beginning Oct. 1, when the 21st Street rehabilitation project in front of Utica Square will be put on hold for three months.
Why? Because the holiday shopping season will be about to start, and people are going to want to get to Utica Square. Similar suspensions of work have occurred around Yale Avenue at 21st and 31st streets for events at Expo Square.
Bottom Line: City officials acknowledge that the Right of Way to Right of Way approach to street rehabilitation is slower than just paving roads and letting the utilities fend for themselves. But it is much less expensive in the long run.
At the same time, the massive volume of street work taking place in the city has challenged the utility companies’ capacity to install their new infrastructure, given their 24/7 responsibility to maintain service to customers in Tulsa and beyond, city officials say.