GUTHRIE — Guthrie Public Schools, which once went nearly a decade without having a single school bond approved by voters, has seen a notable uptick in financial support from the community in the past few years, according to local educators.
Michelle Redus, who has taught in the district for the past 24 years, said she noticed a change as community members rallied around bond issues in 2015 and 2019, as well as a 2018 initiative to switch the district to a neighborhood school model.
“I know at one point, early on in my career, we had about 1,000 (students enrolled), then we dropped and stayed steady at around 800 or 900. Now, all of a sudden, we’re starting to see growth in the lower levels,” Redus said. “We’re going to be busting here pretty quick, which is nice, because we have the new grade school, Charter Oak, to ease some of that growth.”
Guthrie Public Schools, which has a current enrollment of 3,384 students, serves a 230 square-mile area and about 35,000 residents about 30 miles north of Oklahoma City. The district’s superintendent, Mike Simpson, said there are only around 11,000 people living in the city of Guthrie itself, which is something he said makes the district unusual. In addition, Guthrie’s growth is happening on the outskirts of the district, not within its center.
“We’re growing from the south part as Edmond pushes north,” Simpson said.
Along with the growth has come more financial support from the local community. Between 2005 to 2014, the district put nine proposed school bond issues before voters to request funds for school repairs and renovations, a new high school and other improvements. But all nine bond propositions failed.
In the past seven years, however, voters have approved two bond propositions, allowing the district to take on long-overdue projects.
“I think it’s a signal that our community really supports what we do,” Simpson said. “I think we’ve gotten very adept to listening to the community.”
Guthrie Public Schools parent and Chamber of Commerce director Brittany Timmons said she has noticed a similar shift.
“I think the schools are definitely getting more and more community support, especially with our growth,” Timmons said. “We’ve just seen constant improvement with the schools. Thanks to the bond, we’ve been able to do tons of renovations to our current schools, build a new school and we’ll be able to build one more elementary school.”
‘It gives you a sense of family and community’
The 2015 bond issue became the first to pass in Guthrie after 10 years, when 77 percent of voters approved $16.2 million to fund the construction of a new elementary school in the southern part of the district.
The construction of the new school goes hand in hand with a move away from grade centers, in which the district’s elementary students all attended three schools — one for pre-K and kindergarten, one for first grade and one for second and third grades — regardless of where they lived in the district.
In the new model, students attend schools near their homes and stay at the same school through fourth grade.
Building the new facility was high on the administration’s priority list partly because of the district’s layout, which had some kids in the southern parts of the district bussing two hours each way to attend school, according to Simpson.
“You think about a kid that spends four hours on a bus, and then has school in the middle of those two trips,” Simpson said. “We went from grade centers to neighborhood elementary schools because our district and our footprint is huge.”
The new elementary school, Charter Oak, sits approximately 13 miles closer to where those students live.
Timmons believes the change to neighborhood elementary schools has been important for student connections and emotional well-being.
“Our children can stay at the same school for five years before they move. Before, we had kids that were changing schools sometimes every year,” Timmons said.”Psychologically and emotionally, there’s a lot of weight to that just because of the constant change. Having our kids stay in one location helps with their overall relationships with teachers and friendships.”
Redus said she believes the change can also lead to stronger schools.
“Neighborhood schools make sense because you do have ownership, you’re invested,” she said. “If you’re a parent and you have a neighborhood school, you’re going to be more apt to be in that building from grades pre-K to fourth grade, and you’re going to know the ongoings of that building, as opposed to what it was. It builds a little bit of ownership. It gives you a sense of family and community.”
Another bond issue, worth about $19.25 million, was approved with 71.43 percent of the vote in 2019. That money will be used to replace Cotteral Elementary School (in central Guthrie), continue renovations to the junior high and make other improvements.
‘Community involvement has increased’
Redus said she believes the failure of bond issues to receive the required 60 percent voter support in the past was not a sign of any permanent lack of support in the community.
“I think it became a little political. It was individuals that I just personally think didn’t believe in public education, and they got verbal about it,” Redus said. “At the end of the day, you may live here all your life or you may move. The schools will always be here, so you have to think about what’s coming up, the future.”
Timmons and Redus both said they’ve seen community support in other ways as well.
A fundraiser held last fall by the Guthrie Community Foundation, which provides funds for classroom needs, saw great success meeting its goal of bringing in 1,000 donations.
“(We had) tons of businesses, tons of our Chamber investors asking how it works, asking how they can support, and we got to that 1000 number in eight days,” Timmons said. “It was just really neat to see that and that we raised a ton of money in a really short amount of time. When we do new-teacher bags from the Chamber or anything for the schools, people are just flooding us asking how they can help.”
Redus said community involvement has been particularly beneficial to new teachers and ends up being beneficial to parents as well.
“Community involvement has increased, especially at the elementary level, as far as helping with school supplies,” Redus said. “I’m at the high school, so at the beginning of the year we’re starting to see that people will drop off boxes of school office supplies. Even Kleenex or Clorox wipes and basic necessities. They’re starting to do that and ease the burden. Elementary-wise, that’s a lot of money you drop, so that’s a plus for any parent. And for teachers, getting some of those school supplies to start off with is great.”
District teacher charged with felony
While Guthrie Public Schools has a great deal of momentum, it is not immune from issues faced by districts across the state.
In January, a Guthrie High School teacher was charged with engaging in sexual communications with a minor, a felony. In a separate investigation, an employee at Guthrie Junior High was cleared of allegations of inappropriate conduct following an investigation.
According to a report from News 9, Guthrie High School algebra teacher Shawna Kathrein allegedly was caught sending nude photos to a 16-year-old student on the social media app Instagram over Christmas break. The student took screenshots of the photos and reported them to the district’s administration.
Investigators with the Guthrie Police Department said the inappropriate behavior started at the beginning of the semester and included Kathrein flirting with the student by complimenting him on his looks and sitting on his desk while helping him with school work.
Another district employee was cleared of allegations of inappropriate behavior in January following a police investigation.
Guthrie police told KFOR that a parent had reported the allegations to the district on Jan. 6.
Sgt. Anthony Gibbs told the Guthrie News Page that “no stone was left unturned” during the investigation and that GPD and the department’s Criminal Investigations Department is “confident that there is no evidence of misconduct.”