During Ron Sharp’s 38 years teaching civics, Oklahoma history and tennis at Shawnee Public Schools, he was a member of the Oklahoma Education Association. Now a state senator preparing to vote today on a large revenue package to raise the minimum teacher salary scale by more than $5,000 and provide other education funding, he praises the OEA for pressuring lawmakers into action with a planned April 2 school walkout.
But Sharp also says the OEA — the state’s largest teachers’ union — is running “a major risk” in declining to endorse the current proposal, which made history Monday night by passing the House with a supermajority. Instead, OEA president Alicia Priest spoke with media Tuesday and called HB 1010XX “a step in the right direction” but said her organization still seeks a multi-year plan that would require about twice as much revenue.
Sharp (R-Shawnee) said he believes the revenue package within HB 1010XX could fall apart without support from the OEA and teachers at large.
“That’s what’s scary. That’s very frightening,” Sharp said. “I will assure you, if educators do not start contacting their senators immediately, this is going to go down. It is critical at this point in time. [Senators] are getting hit by the anti-tax people who say it’s a bad time to raise taxes, and then they’re getting hit by teachers who are saying this is not enough.”
In addition to conservative policy and advocacy groups, tobacco companies and Oklahoma’s two primary petroleum associations also oppose the package.
Asked whether the teachers’ union would have supported the House revenue bill had it passed a month earlier before OEA announced an April 2 walkout date, Priest said she did not know.
“I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don’t,” she said. “What I know is that we’ve been 10 years without a raise, we’ve [seen] 10 years of cuts to our student services and we’ve got to do something to make that up. This is a first step. This is movement in the right direction, and we have to continue the talks and the movement.”
Rep. Bush: ‘Now it’s not enough?’
But numerous lawmakers have expressed surprise that the OEA has not come out in favor of the House’s bipartisan agreement.
“If you’re only against it because you wanted $10,000 and you’re not going to be happy with an aggregate of $6,100 — some of these people will get up to $8,300 — I need better than that,” said Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater) who voted with all 27 other House Democrats in favor of Monday night’s agreement. “At the end of the day, I believe the management at OEA is abysmal.”
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“The movement that we have going on right now, it’s not OEA-led,” Williams said of the walkout. “They’ve co-opted it, but at the end of the day, it was started by teachers and led by teachers. I have no problem with the teachers. I have no problem with the leadership the teachers have shown.”
Other lawmakers agreed.
“I’m not sure that their whole union is totally behind their leadership’s response, just from comments I got on social media from various members,” Rep. Carol Bush (R-Tulsa) said. “Last night was one piece of the bigger puzzle. I keep trying to explain that to our teachers and to the OEA members. To get a 15 to 18 percent raise is pretty phenomenal. Nobody else gets that. Not even in the private sector, usually.”
Bush said educators from the Jenks and Bixby school districts that she represents “were very grateful” to learn about the House plan Monday night. She said a lack of OEA support could jeopardize the bill in the Senate, which many lawmakers believe may seek to remove the hotel-motel tax component.
“Wasn’t it a month ago that [the OEA] was for $5,000 (raises)? They were all behind that, but now it’s not enough?” Bush asked.
She was far from the only lawmaker posing that question Tuesday.
“You look back at the Step Up plan, they were on board for a $5,000 pay raise,” said House Majority Leader Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher). “Well, they’re getting on average $6,100. Career teachers are going to be rewarded for longevity, and a beginning teacher is going to get a $5,000 raise. So when is enough enough? This is not a direct shot at teachers at all.”
Sanders said he “unfortunately” cannot rectify the notion in his mind that the Step Up Oklahoma plan was supported by OEA in February, but larger raises, support staff raises and $50 million in additional classroom funding is not good enough now.
“It’s a credibility issue to me. That’s what I think,” Sanders said. “You can’t say one thing and come back three weeks later and demand something twice as much, and when we deliver something in between you say it’s not good enough.”
OEA’s Priest: ‘Working with our legislators to understand the needs’
Priest emphasized that she has not said the OEA opposes the House-passed revenue plan, and she also discussed her organization’s past support for Step Up Oklahoma.
“The Step Up plan was movement. It failed,” Priest said. “We had the House come together with bipartisan, unprecedented support last night with 79 votes on a revenue-raising bill, and that’s a big deal. And we acknowledge that is movement and positive steps. So what we are saying is we are going to be continuously looking at the process, working with what our entire student population’s needs are and working with our legislators to understand the needs of those students.”
But Sen. Ervin Yen (R-OKC) said he was startled to learn that the OEA plans to go forward with an April 2 walkout even if the House revenue plan and salary increases pass the Senate and are signed by the governor.
“I’m surprised by that. We’ll see what the public thinks of it,” Yen said. “It just seems odd. It could be that they’ve already pushed the button for the walkout, and it’s hard to un-push the button. I don’t know.”
Speaker McCall: ‘It’s not an end, but it creates certainty’
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said the House’s bipartisan passage of HB 1010XX is “not something to take lightly.”
“It creates certainty. It’s not an end, but it creates certainty for the state of Oklahoma, for teachers and for state employees,” he said. “That package delivers the largest teacher pay raise in state history.”
McCall said his office began receiving “very thankful” calls Monday night through Tuesday about the House plan.
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“They appreciate the House coming together in a bipartisan manner to get them a significant pay raise,” he said. “I think there’s a lot at stake with the package. I think we are risking a lot by amending it. I think the package needs to move forward as is. As evidenced by the House of Representatives, this is the recipe that garnered 79 votes for the first time in state history on a revenue measure.”
Sen. Casey Murdock (R-Felt) spent much of the past 15 months as a member of the House, and Tuesday he praised the bipartisan agreement as it approaches potential consideration in the Senate on Wednesday.
“It’s a 15 percent pay increase. It’s a large pay increase,” Murdock said. “The emails I have received by the vast majority of the teachers in my district have thanked us for what we did last night on the House side.”
Yen discussed the components of the plan in detail.
“I’d rather have a $1.50 cigarette tax. I’d rather have a $0.06 fuel tax. I’m fine with the 5 percent gross production tax, as I was fine with the 4 percent in several bills previously. I don’t think I like the $5 hotel-motel tax,” Yen said. “Will I vote for it? Chances are yes. We’ve got this impending strike looking us in the face. So I think I would have to vote for it.”
Rep. Greg Babinec (R-Cushing) said he hopes the OEA will ultimately encourage the Senate to pass the measure.
“I would think they would be on board and say, ‘This is a great first step. Let’s keep working,'” Babinec said.
He said he has spoken with two superintendents and two principals who were excited by the deal that the House passed Monday.
“I think there is a disconnect,” Babinec said. “I think there is a group of folks out there who say, ‘Wow, this is a great first step.’ And then there is a group of folks out there saying, ‘No, this is no good. Say no to this. Let’s keep working.’ I say take this while we have it, and let’s keep working. Let’s do both.”
Sanders also said he hopes lawmakers fully pass the plan, and he referenced the OEA leadership elections in doing so.
“All I know is we were here to get a teacher pay raise, and we have delivered, and whatever internal politics is going on at OEA, that’s their deal,” Sanders said. “My job is to make sure we deliver on a teacher pay raise, and that’s what we did.”