OKCPS board

(Editor’s Note: The following is text from long-time Oklahoma City Public School Board member Phil Horning’s farewell address delivered Feb. 1. It has been edited slightly for style.)

I have loved serving on the OKC school board and being your teammate. I have almost always been lucky, and these past eight years with you has been a part of my good luck. Serving on the board had a lot of karmic connections to my early life, and I want to briefly share that with you. Besides, you have had eight years to see how I am, so let me tell you how I got that way.

I started out as a child. (Now you’re getting worried, right? You’re asking, “He did say briefly, right?”) Yes, I did.

An only child of an immigrant father and a mother who became a career public school teacher, I lived in four Oklahoma towns before moving to OKC, where our first address was a hotel room in the 400 block of North Broadway. We had no car, and my father walked to work at The Oklahoman, to which our district now provides more local stories than any other source. Across the street was a second-floor bowling alley, which is now the office of TAP Architecture, designers of John Rex Elementary. The family entertainment was watching other people bowl.

We moved to a boarding house at the corner of Northeast 13th Street and the railroad tracks, and I became an OKCPS kindergarten student at Lincoln Elementary. That building is now a part of the Oklahoma School of Science and Math, and a job there is what brought (board chairwoman) Lynne Hardin back to her home town from Florida.

My mother needed to finish her education to become a teacher, so our family split for a while, with my father remaining at the boarding house while my mother and I moved to the campus of Central State College, now UCO, our partner in the urban teaching academy.

Eventually, we moved to Norman, became a two-income family, and things got better. My parents built a two-bedroom house, where I lived with them until I was 22, when I graduated from OU and went to the Army. I was lucky all the way because I had engaged parents.

So, when I see the families of our district, I see my family of origin, and when I see our students, I see me. When uninformed politicians and others criticize their progress, I feel attacked. No matter what good fortune I might later have, I am irrevocably shaped by my background, just as you are by yours. I tell you these personal things because I want you to understand my motivations.

I brought all of my background to my OKCPS board service along with two helpful factors: First, I was positive about our district from the start. Because I had been tutoring children at Linwood, I was not a disgruntled parent, former employee or patron. Second, I was retired and had the time to give. My hat is off to my fellow board members who are working full-time while serving on the board, and I thank each of them for that service.

While we frequently disagree on details, I think the strength of our board is that we almost always agree on major policy issues, and, like you, we are committed to public education and have no interest in de-funding it, discrediting it and privatizing it. We also unanimously support (Superintendent) Rob Neu, who has brought us a forward-looking vision that was missing. Rob, I hope you stay a long, long time.

‘Our state political leadership has failed public education’

After serving with four superintendents and 17 board members, including four board chairs since 2008, I have two observations and some facts to share.

First observation: Our state political leadership has failed public education.

Since I joined the board, our state formula funding has declined by 24.2 percent. Worst in the nation. Alabama was next with minus 17.3 percent.

During the same period, statewide funding for common education has fallen by $198 million. Meanwhile, the student population has increased by 50,000.

Our teachers are the third-lowest paid in the nation.

We are 49th in per-pupil expenditures for instruction and salaries.

The Legislature has cut the top income-tax rate by 27 percent since 2004, costing us $1 billion in tax revenue annually. The anticipated shortfall for next year’s state budget is about $1 billion.

To add insult to injury, two legislators are again pushing voucher legislation. They falsely tell us that it won’t hurt public education because each departing student would only take most of the per-pupil expenditure, but not all. However, the departing students would be too few for us to hire one less teacher, much less close a school. Thus, we would be left to operate the same overhead on millions less. I have heard the proponents make a misleading presentation (at a private school, of course), so I offer this challenge: I will debate this issue with them anytime, any place, before any audience. It’s a bad idea, and hopefully wiser lawmakers will again reject it.

‘Volunteerism and philanthropy have never been stronger’

My second observation: Contrast the Legislature’s performance to that of the leadership of our renaissance city. A four-term mayor, long-term city manager and an effective council have overseen great achievement. They were not averse to taxing to achieve important goals. From the private sector, volunteerism and philanthropy have never been stronger. The OKCPS Foundation, the Inasmuch Foundation, the McLaughlin Family Foundation and many others — please know we are grateful.

So, here ends the sermon. If our students and all our employees were a city, we would be the ninth largest in the state. In a city of 50,000, there is always occasional misfortune, but in our city, we know the vast majority of 46,000 students go to school happily every day where they are met by dedicated teachers, and they learn every day.

Always remember you can count on me to advocate for you and, when necessary, to defend you vigorously. So call me when I can help. And if you do, know that this gun is not for hire.

For you, it’s free.