Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, reads a statement to media Thursday, April 12, 2018, saying her organization was refocusing its energy from a teacher walkout toward November 2018 elections. (Tres Savage)

On day nine of the Oklahoma teacher walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association held a press conference this afternoon to announce that classes will be resuming across the state and that educators “must turn our attention towards November.”

“We recognize that our formal efforts to lobby elected leaders have achieved all that we will be able to accomplish this legislative session,” OEA president Alicia Priest said in a statement she read to media. “Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out over the grounds for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday.”

Priest said OEA members were able to secure almost half a billion dollars in new revenue over the past few weeks.

“The Legislature, however, has fallen well short of its responsibility to Oklahoma’s students,” Priest said in her statement. “As classes resume, we must turn our attention toward the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office.”

The OEA had been criticized by lawmakers — and teachers — for having an unclear set of demands that changed from day to day. At first, the organization asked for an expansion of tribal gaming and a bill allowing sales tax collection on third-party Amazon vendors. But minutes after those bills passed, Priest held a press conference listing two new goals that would end the walkout:

  • Have Gov. Mary Fallin veto the repeal of a hotel-motel tax
  • Have the Legislature pass the repeal of Oklahoma’s income tax deduction for capital gains revenues

Fallin signed the hotel-motel repeal, and House Republican leadership declined to hear the capital gains measure.

Treat: ‘I’ve gotten mixed messages’

Sen. Greg Treat (R-OKC) holds up an Oklahoma Education Association chart Thursday, April 12, 2018, that notes the Legislature has met more than 90 percent of its demands. (William W. Savage III)

Priest said Thursday that “Senate Republicans won’t budge an inch on any more revenue for public education.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat (R-OKC) spoke to media earlier in the day and said his caucus had raised all the revenue it planned on considering. He also expressed frustration over his recent meetings with OEA.

“I’ve gotten mixed messages,” Treat said of what the state’s largest teachers association sought to end the walkout. “They didn’t give me a solid number. There were three different numbers thrown out, and I didn’t hear a resting point on what the actual dollar amount was.

“I was frustrated by the lack of consistency with their request, although the meetings have been cordial.”

Treat spoke about hearing from teachers who were also confused about what it would take to end the walkout.

“I’ve heard it a myriad of times this week in meetings with teachers: ‘Hey, the OEA doesn’t represent me. Hey, the POE doesn’t represent me,'” Treat said. “To be honest, I don’t know if there’s one central person in charge of the whole teacher walkout. One of my frustrations has been that, if we are wanting to negotiate, if we are wanting to give assurances, who is the person to talk to? And I’ve yet to get an answer.”

Treat said the Senate would not be considering additional revenue measures.

“We’ve consistently said we’re not for more revenue discussions right now because we have already done $500 million (for education),” he said.

Background on the teacher walkout

Teachers from across Oklahoma shutdown schools starting Monday, April 2, to rally at the Capitol. Days earlier, the Legislature had passed a historic tax package and teacher pay raise plan that would result in a minimum $5,000 pay raise for public educators. Over ensuing days, several districts resumed classes, but the state’s largest remained out.

House Majority Leader Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher) said educators should be worried about a potential referendum veto being spearheaded by a conservative organization headed by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. If enough signatures are gathered, Oklahoma voters would be asked to approve or disapprove the Legislature’s tax package for education funding.

“Honestly, that’s probably my biggest concern,” Sanders said. “If that were to (get on the ballot), you’ve got to halt all of your (new revenue) monies that come in until that’s decided. If I were OEA, that would make me very wary.”

Priest echoed Sanders’ comments in her press conference.

This week, school districts in Bartlesville and Sand Springs resumed classes. Moore Public Schools announced it would return to classes Thursday, but many teachers called in sick and visited the Capitol again.

Earlier Thursday, Oklahoma City Public Schools announced it will remain closed Friday, but Norman Public Schools announced it will resume classes Monday.

Priest said it will be up to individual school districts as to when classes resume in their schools. Other education associations had yet to release statements on the subject as of the publication of this post.