Tulsa superintendent attacks Legislature over school funding


Ray Carter | March 30, 2021

Tulsa superintendent attacks Legislature over school funding

Ray Carter

With a teacher walkout pending, state lawmakers approved some of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma history in 2018. State appropriations for education are now $545 million more than at that time, and total school funding, including cash forward reserves, has increased by $1.36 billion.

But Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist dismissed that funding increase as only a minor “step” during a press conference this week and attacked lawmakers for not providing more money.

“We had our walkout, and they took one step in the right direction to give a one-year increase to our teachers that was about $3,000—which by the way, is about what Dallas, Texas, gives to their teachers every single year,” Gist said. “So the idea that that step was going to correct decades of underfunding is just flawed.”

While Gist described the 2018 teacher pay raise as a $3,000 pay bump, the average raise approved that year was $6,100, and lawmakers added another increase of about $1,200 in 2019, providing a two-year average pay increase of $7,300 for teachers.

Teachers also get additional annual increases in their base salary based on length of service.

Gist dismissed the idea that lawmakers have addressed school funding and teacher pay in a meaningful way.

“It’s an age-old trick, right? We convince you—as taxpayers in Oklahoma—we convince you that there is enough money; it’s just being used badly,” Gist said. “And then we hit that over and over and over again.”

Gist declared schools are “under relentless attack by our own state leaders,” saying state leaders are “intent on gutting” schools and “robbing Oklahoma’s children, their teachers and their parents.”

Gist made those comments about state lawmakers during a press conference this week in which she attacked a legal settlement reached between the state and the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association. Public charter schools sued the state over inequitable funding. A settlement agreement approved by the State Board of Education provided for all public school students to be treated the same when it comes to funding, including both state and local tax sources.

When students move from one public school district to another, the property tax funding allotted for that student typically follows the child to the new school. But that was not the case for public charter schools. Under the system in place prior to approval of the settlement agreement, if a student transferred from a traditional public school to a public charter school the traditional school kept all local tax funding allotted for that child while the public charter school that educated the student received none of those funds.

That created major disparities that artificially inflated funding for Tulsa Public Schools and depressed charter-school funding, even though the Tulsa district no longer served those students. A national report issued in December 2020 found that per-pupil revenue in the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district was $12,949 per student from all sources in the 2017-18 school year, while Tulsa’s public charter schools received just $7,686 per child, a difference of $5,263, or 41 percent.

Chris Brewster, president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association, recently noted in a tweet that students attending brick-and-mortar charter schools make up 5.8 percent of public-school students in Oklahoma, but receive just 2.1 percent of the amount spent on public-school students.

At the same time Tulsa Public Schools has been receiving excess property tax funding due to the charter-school disparity, the Tulsa district has also been receiving significant surplus funding from state appropriations thanks to a funding formula that allows Tulsa to be paid for higher student enrollments from prior years.

This year, Tulsa Public Schools’ state funding can be based on a two-year-old enrollment figure that is nearly 3,300 students greater than current enrollment. Such payments are informally referred to as “ghost student” payments since schools are paid for educating children who do not exist in that district.

Because the state-aid figure for 2021 is $3,533 per student, that translates into $11.6 million in state payments to Tulsa Public Schools for students the district does not serve. That money comes on top of any excess property tax funding the districts retained from local sources that would have followed students to other schools had they not attended charter schools.

Lawmakers have advanced legislation this year to reduce such “ghost student” funding.

In her press conference, Gist primarily attacked Epic Charter Schools, an online statewide charter school, although the lawsuit settlement benefits many brick-and-mortar charter schools who have hailed the provision of equitable funding. Gist acknowledged that fact only in response to questioning.

“We provide them with significant support as a district,” Gist said of Tulsa’s brick-and-mortar charter schools. “So what this does, yes, is it pits us against each other.”

Gist criticized the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association for filing a lawsuit over inequitable funding—even as she vowed that Tulsa Public Schools would file a lawsuit over funding.

“Our funding formula—one that we are all so proud of here in Oklahoma, actually—it is a policy tool, and it should be treated that way,” Gist said. “It’s not an issue for courts to decide or for the state board.”

She made that comment only minutes after saying, “We at Tulsa Public Schools will pursue any and all available legal options that we have.”

Gist also suggested that numerous officials involved in the lawsuit settlement have conflicts of interest. She made those claims only weeks after dismissing criticisms that she and other members of the Tulsa Public School board have conflicts of interest.

“These are people who are getting rich from taxpayer dollars that are being diverted from our already underfunded classrooms, and they’re doing all of this in plain sight,” Gist said. “The connections are obvious and they are horrifying. For example, it appears the attorney who filed the lawsuit is married to an executive at Epic, and there are conflicts of those on the state board who are appointed by the governor and then removed if they don’t support this racket. Follow the donations. It is truly stunning what is happening right in plain sight.”

Attorney William Hickman represented the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association in its lawsuit. While his wife works for Epic, the lawsuit was originally filed in 2017 when Epic’s enrollment was dramatically lower than today. No member of the State Board of Education has been identified as having any direct financial interest in any public charter schools. And none of the members of the State Board of Education receive campaign donations.

One member of the State Board of Education, Jennifer Monies, serves on the board of a public charter school. Following the settlement, she stated, “I fundamentally believe all public-school students deserve to have access to the same public education funding. Federal, state, and local taxes are paid, in part, to provide a free public education for all students. How that funding is divvied up should not be a complicated formula no one understands that is dictated by the type of public school a child attends. That is an outdated way to fund public schools. Every public-school student should have access to the same public funding.”

Gist lobbed her attacks just weeks after dismissing more substantive conflict-of-interest concerns raised about Tulsa Public Schools officials.

Local Tulsa citizens have filed formal grievances including one complaint that notes Gist’s husband, Ronnie Jobe, is the senior vice president and manager of institutional markets for Bank of Oklahoma (BOKF), which serves as paying agent and registrar for a Tulsa district bond and has received contracts from Tulsa schools that were “entered into without having gone through a competitive bidding process.”

Two other complaints raise concerns about Tulsa Public Schools board members Jania Wester and Judith Barba’s personal ties to Growing Together, an entity that provides contracted services to students and teachers in Tulsa schools. The complaints note that Growing Together “is overseen and managed” by Wester’s spouse, Kirk Wester, and that Barba “is employed by Growing Together.”

During the Tulsa Public School board’s March meeting, Gist attacked those critics, saying they were “actively spreading false information” and that responding to their conflict-of-interest concerns steals “hours and likely cumulative months at this point of our district’s time and attention.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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