Oklahoma Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister convenes the state board of education meeting Thursday, June 22, 2017. (William W. Savage III)

(Update: Since this story published, OKCPS leadership announced that North Highlands Elementary would not be closing. This story was also updated at 12 p.m. Friday, June 23, to note that the proposed temporary OKC tax increase is for income tax. NonDoc regrets the error.)

While the Oklahoma State Board of Education was approving emergency certification for 224 teachers Thursday morning, the chairwoman of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board was launching an initiative petition to hike teacher pay in OKC.

At the same time, students, parents, teachers and community members associated with North Highlands Elementary School in north Oklahoma City spent Thursday adjusting to news that the school had been recommended for emergency closure for being “in crisis,” according to OKCPS Superintendent Aurora Lora.

The emergence of all three stories in under 24 hours highlights the complex and high-stress nature of Oklahoma education issues.

“Teachers say the reason they leave the profession is that they don’t feel supported,” Oklahoma Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister told the state board of education before they voted on the emergency certifications. “We wouldn’t expect to go to a physician who has no training and no experience and say, ‘You know, here’s somebody who just loves people.’ We’d know that wasn’t best practice, and we wouldn’t stand for that.”

Hofmeister said this month’s approval of emergency certifications was about three times higher than last June, although board members pointed out that some applicants might be certified teachers from other states and many have advanced degrees. The list of applicants only designates their degree level, the area for which they are being certified and the district.

Hofmeister said more than 1,100 emergency certifications were issued for the fiscal year that ends this month, and she said Oklahoma districts still have about 800 to 1,000 teaching positions that remain unfilled.

“That’s what this really speaks to — the lack of applicants,” she said. “(It speaks to) the lack of people who are answering the call to fill the need.”

‘You have to listen to them’

From left to right, Oklahoma teachers Marshall Wade, Sam Madewell and Matthew Skinner discuss education issues at the Oklahoma Department of Education on Thursday, June 22, 2017. (William W. Savage III)

As board members heard presentations about the department’s budget, programs and emergency certifications, Matthew Skinner sat in the audience trying to learn whatever he could about school administration. The math and science teacher had attended a board of education once before when he answered the call to teach 10 years ago via emergency certification.

“It was not that hard to get my testing done, but the classroom was the toughest part — trying to learn how to deal with middle school students,” Skinner said after the meeting. “The one thing I learned is you have to listen to them. You can’t project what you think that you know on them. You have to listen to what they say, and if you’re not going to do that, you’re going to have a really tough time in the classroom.”

Skinner, a new Mid-Del Schools teacher who taught previously at U.S. Grant in OKC, is pursuing a master’s in education at Southern Nazarene University. He and four classmates had attended the meeting, and they offered advice to those certified via emergency Thursday.

“Do not get overwhelmed. It gets better,” said Sam Madewell, a teacher at Midwest City High School. “Your first year is going to be very tough. Your second year is not going to be much easier. It really is a two- to three-year process.”

‘We need to address education’

Whether teachers will see a raise in their base pay any time soon remains anyone’s guess. Legislators were unable to strike a revenue agreement this year to fund a proposed $6,000 pay hike over the next three years. This past November, voters also rejected SQ 779.

In the meantime, Oklahoma City Public Schools Board Chairwoman Paula Lewis and OKC Councilman Ed Shadid announced a proposal Thursday morning to place a four-year, 0.25 percent raise of the OKC income tax before voters via initiative petition. The money would be dispersed to multiple districts serving Oklahoma City, and it would be intended for increasing teacher compensation and decreasing class sizes by hiring more instructors.

“I commend councilman Shadid for being innovative and creative for trying to find a way to fund Oklahoma City public education in response to our Legislature under-funding us,” Lewis said later Thursday. “It’s important and it’s necessary, and the only way this city is going to move forward is if we move all of our infrastructure together equally and equitably.”

Earlier in the week, the OKC City Council advanced a September ballot proposal that will ask voters three things:

  • whether to pass a new general obligations bond,
  • whether to extend MAPS sales taxes for road and sidewalk work,
  • and whether to increase sales tax to fund police and fire services.

Lewis and Shadid have critiqued those proposals for ignoring other issues such as education.

“So we need to address our incarceration rates, we need to address mental health, and we need to address education,” Lewis said. “The city has the money to do that. They don’t need another 29-month extension of MAPS for Streets because we’re running a $500 million bond for streets.”

Lewis said they will need to gather about 12,000 valid signatures in 90 days to place the education-funding proposal on a ballot. She said the proposal would raise an estimated $25 million that would be split between the 24 school districts that serve children within Oklahoma City limits, about $17 million of which would go to OKCPS.

But as for what that money would mean in terms of teacher pay, Lewis said union negotiations and other factors make the exact math unpredictable.

“We can’t give an estimate on that,” she said.

‘What the living wage really means’

Marshall Wade, a 25-year-old teacher at Edmond’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, would not be in line to receive additional money from the OKC proposal or from any state pay increase.

But he attended the Oklahoma State Board of Education with his graduate-school colleagues, Skinner and Madewell, and spoke about the need for higher teacher pay across the board.

“There seems to be very little taken into account for what the living wage really means,” Wade said. “I think that, Oklahoma City, where I live, things are popping up quickly and things are becoming more expensive, but we’re staying the same.”

Wade said he has been studying the and reading Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers.

“This is affecting teachers nationwide. There are teachers who are homeless in San Francisco who are trying to teach from 7 to 3 and not have a place to live,” Wade said. “I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to come to here, but it’s stressful to think that me, as a recently married person who is trying to grow a family, I’m going to have to consider how my job is affecting the growth of my family.”