MCALESTER— Teachers and supporters of the Oklahoma teacher walkout lined the street outside the McAlester Regional Airport on Wednesday morning, awaiting the arrival of Gov. Mary Fallin as the state teacher walkout entered its third day.
Oklahoma educators, public employees and their supporters began a walkout on Monday, and thousands of protestors have taken to the state Capitol building since then to encourage legislators to increase education funding in the state.
On Monday morning, Fallin was attending a meeting at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and not at her office at the Capitol, though many teachers signed up requesting a meeting with the outgoing governor.
Fallin issued a statement later that day saying she appreciated the teachers showing up and touting the signing of a measure increasing teacher salaries by around $6,000. But though the tax and state revenue increases passed by the Legislature and signed into law will provide some additional money, finding other sources of revenue to fund educators’ requests would be difficult, Fallin said.
— Clifton Adcock (@cliftonhowze) April 4, 2018
“Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows,” Fallin’s statement read. “Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible. We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state such as corrections and health and human services as we continue to consider additional education funding measures. I look forward to continuing to talk with legislative leaders and teachers as we forge a positive pathway forward for education.”
On Tuesday, thousands of teachers, public employees and their supporters flooded the Capitol building, forcing the fire marshal to restrict access. Fallin again did not meet with teachers on that day, but told a journalist that the protesting teachers were “like having a teenage kid who wants a better car.” She also said some of the protestors were from ANTIFA, a left-leaning group that has been accused of participating in violence in some cities.
After learning that Fallin was scheduled to attend the grand opening of Spirit Aero Systems’ new fabrication center in McAlester on Wednesday morning, teachers, students, parents and public employees from around southeastern Oklahoma showed up to protest.
“I’ve been here 36 years and haven’t had a raise in 16,” said Renae Jeffreys, a fourth grade teacher from Savanna who showed up at the airport. “We got our raise, but we are here to get supplies for our students. They cut our funding to where it’s awful.”
Though Savanna Public Schools was in session on Wednesday, Jeffreys and several other teachers were allowed to attend the protest. Edith Smith, an eighth grade reading teacher from Savannah said she has 37 students in her class, while Julie McBane, a kindergarten teacher from the same district, said she has 27.
“We are thankful for what we have had in our community,” McBane said. “But I’ll tell you right now, there’s no telling what our kids can continue to do if we had just a little bit of help.”
Signs and statements by those in attendance indicated that they were not happy with Fallin’s recent comments on the teacher protests.
“We’re tired of being slammed, like what Gov. Fallin said — that we’re teenagers wanting a new car,” Jeffreys said. “No we are not. We are teachers who are here wanting to improve things for our students. She’s here today when most of our teachers are at the Capitol? I don’t understand that. It has nothing to do with education. That’s another slap.”
Eufaula middle school principal Chris Whelan said the walkout is not for additional teacher pay increases, but for increased funding for classrooms overall and to make sure the increases that have been promised are able to come to fruition.
“The House and the Senate want to make us believe it (the teacher pay increase) is paid for, but in actuality there’s too many holes in in,” Whelan said. “What’s going to happen is, this time next year, if it’s not funded properly then our school district and every school district here will be issuing unpayable warrants, which means writing hot checks basically, to our teachers.”
And the decision by educators, public employees and their supporters to come to McAlester on Wednesday was meant to get the governor’s attention, he said.
“The reason we’re here today is because the governor should understand that she still has work to do,” Whelan said. “Basically, what she did last Thursday was sign a $150 million hot check. She has got to figure out how she’s going to pay for that hot check. We’re not asking for more money for us or bigger raises, we want what has been promised to us paid for.”
Upon arriving on a state-owned aircraft, Fallin drove past protestors lining both sides of the street just outside the airport holding signs and calling for more funding, waving to them as she passed.
Fallin was also greeted by scores of protesters lining the streets near the Spirit Aero Systems facility and near the McAlester Army Ammunition plant, which she also visited Wednesday.
Spirit Aero Systems, which manufactures commercial and military aircraft parts and has facilities in Tulsa, Wichita and McAlester, received at least $28 million in Quality Jobs incentive payments from Oklahoma between 2007 and 2016.
“The opening of Spirit’s center of excellence in McAlester is further evidence that Oklahoma is one of the world’s premier destinations for the aerospace and defense industries,” Fallin was quoted as saying in a press release from the company on Wednesday morning. “We are appreciative of Spirit’s confidence in our state and the industry, and are excited for the opportunities this will create for Oklahomans. This is another example that our commitment to pro-business policies is resulting in a wide variety of jobs for our state.”
As Fallin’s motorcade rolled past the rows of protesters outside the airport, she gave a wave to those standing on the other side of her vehicle window.
“Yeah, she waved,” McBane said after the motorcade passed. “It was not a cheer line.”