Deborah Gist: Want to avoid a ‘bleak future?’ Put pressure on your legislators

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Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

I felt a sense of déjà vu when I read this week’s headlines about the failure of our state leaders to pass a plan to fill Oklahoma’s expected multi-million dollar revenue shortfall.

In the two years since I returned home to lead the team at Tulsa Public Schools, I have lost count of the number of speeches I’ve made about our state budget, the press interviews, the opinion pieces, and the near-daily conversations with Oklahomans from all walks of life.

Again this year, it’s likely that my team and I will commit a significant amount of time during the winter and early spring pouring over our expenses, trying to squeeze blood from a turnip to identify potential cuts. Instead of keeping our focus on supporting our schools, teachers, and families in order to increase academic achievement, we will be figuring out how to keep our doors open. This has become an unfortunate, disruptive, and detrimental tradition for state-funded agencies throughout Oklahoma.

Let’s be clear, however, that this is not normal. Nobody in our state should accept this as the status quo. It is an unintentional but self-destructive pattern of inaction, and all of us in our state are responsible for it.

What happens if we keep going like this? What if by 2020 (which is less than three years away) nothing has changed — the trend continues — and Tulsa Public Schools continues to experience cuts upwards of $10 million every year?

If our state leaders are unable to agree upon a sustainable revenue plan, by the start of the 2020 school year, we would be operating with a budget reduced by more than $50 million. Continued class size increases would mean that teachers could have classes of more than 40 students at a time — consistently (because we know that sometimes happens now.)

By 2020, we would almost surely no longer have athletics programs. Without sports, Tulsa students don’t have important extracurricular experiences with teamwork, leadership, and perseverance. They miss important learning opportunities that build character and create alternate pathways for academic, personal, and professional success.

Without athletics, some students don’t have the same incentive to come to school or keep up their grades, and some just don’t stay in school at all.

I imagine we would also have had to cut fine arts programming, so students no longer participate in music, visual arts, dance, and drama. These are critical components of a quality education. Over time, the loss of fine arts diminishes the culture of our entire city. We are no longer fostering the next generation of artists and musicians, so a thriving music and arts community in Tulsa loses opportunities to grow and innovate.

Of course, without strong academic programs, fine arts, and athletics, our graduating students no longer have the scholarship opportunities available to student athletes, musicians, artists, actors, and scholars.

In 2020, it could be likely that thousands of students and their families have had to find new ways to get to and from school because bus service could be limited to only those students we are required by law to transport. Student attendance, which we already struggle to keep up, would likely go down, and some students could end up walking unsafe routes to try to get to school.

Without relief from dramatic budget cuts, we may need to go the route of many Oklahoma school districts and implement a four-day school week could cause child care pricing to increase significantly in response to the higher demand. Children could also be left unattended while parents work. Learning would suffer because longer weekends would lead to additional learning loss.

By 2020, economic development in Tulsa — and throughout Oklahoma — could be stifled. Our incoming talent pipeline would be damaged, and employers could be finding it incredibly difficult to retain top-notch talent. Companies would likely reevaluate their future growth prospects in our state and new business attraction or development could be halted. Our college students would likely put in four years here to graduate and leave to seek their futures elsewhere, exacerbating the brain drain we already experience.

If this description of 2020 seems like a bleak future to you, that’s because it would be. I wish I were being hyperbolic. Unfortunately, I know our budget well enough to know the very real cuts we have had to make and have had to contemplate.

It’s also a future that starts with the decisions that our state leaders must make to begin to turn back a decade of funding cuts before it’s too late for a reinvestment to make a difference.

We are all looking to our state leaders to identify sustainable revenue. Addressing our state’s structural deficit and reinvesting in education is the bare minimum of what we need to get our state back on track. Even the best case scenario that our state leaders have considered for a teacher salary increase is not adequate to pay educators what they deserve as the stewards of our next generation of leaders.

Every Oklahoman should be asking their state legislators to take action. Visit www.oklegislature.gov and look them up. After you call them, tell your friends and ask them to make a call too. Share it on Facebook. Post it on Twitter. Send a group text. Go old school and call your friends and family. Put it in the church bulletin. Seek and encourage action, not just worry or complaint from our neighbors. And then do it all again tomorrow and every single day until our state creates a viable and sustainable plan to reinvest in our schools.

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve lost hope. I can genuinely tell you that I absolutely have not. I came home because I believe in Tulsa and in Tulsans. I came home to be a part of Tulsa’s revitalization and to ensure our school district is contributing mightily to that. To do that, we need our state’s support to adequately fund our schools. Our city is an incredible place to live — we have a low cost of living, beautiful parks, attractions like Guthrie Green, the Philbrook Museum, and Cain’s Ballroom, a thriving music and arts community, and even the Center of the Universe! Of course, the greatest resource we have in Tulsa are the incredible people who make up our community. Imagine instead what Tulsa could be with a world-class public education system. We would be unstoppable.

We are on the move as city, and Tulsa Public Schools has incredible momentum and is already seeing results from the work we’ve been doing. So yes, I have hope – boundless hope. I believe in our collective ability to solve this problem and continue forward together to make Tulsa a destination for excellence.

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