BY MIKE W. RAY
The planned April 2 teacher walkout is largely, but not entirely, about salaries. Money is sought for more than just a teacher pay raise. It’s also needed for items such as classroom supplies, infrastructure, and current teaching materials, whether that be textbooks or electronic tablets.
PAPER, PENCILS DONATED TO VALLIANT SCHOOLS
As an illustration, in McCurtain County, the Valliant United Methodist Church has collected school supplies “for as long as Jerry and I can remember,” said Cynthia Ellis, wife of former state legislator Jerry Ellis.
A box is placed in the lobby of the church on the first Sunday in August and remains there until the first Sunday after Labor Day.
For the past five years the collection has been limited to notebook paper and No. 2 lead pencils, and when the box is filled, “another empty box replaces it,” Mrs. Ellis said.
“Usually we have 150 packages of paper,” she said. “We don’t count pencils.”
The supplies are distributed to families of elementary and middle school students who attend the church, and the parishioners are responsible for “giving them out as needed to students.”
In addition, for the past three years the Valliant United Methodist Women has given a donation to the local high school library for the purchase of library books. This school year the church women donated $500.
“The library [media center] has not had a budget for several years,” Mrs. Ellis said.
Also, when the UMW receives word from the elementary school that copy paper is needed for worksheets – which substitute for worn-out textbooks – cases of copy paper “magically appear in the copy machine room,” Mrs. Ellis said.
“Our last buy was when Office Max/Office Depot had a sale: two reams for $5. Thirty-two reams of paper appeared,” she recalled. “That may not sound like much for 485 students, but the school staff were thrilled when one of our members showed up and asked for a two-wheel dolly to unload the paper.”
HEAVENER TEXTBOOKS IN TATTERS
Valliant school district isn’t the only one with tattered textbooks. In 2014, former state Rep. James Lockhart of Heavener brought to the state Capitol the science and math textbooks that were handed out to his children that year. Both books were held together with duct tape.
State Rep. David Perryman of Chickasha, discussing the education funding plan the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed Monday night, pointed out that it would do more than just raise teacher pay.
“This is about funding school book purchases so that 12-year-old children do not have to use 12-year-old science books in a world where technology changes daily,” Perryman wrote.
LEGISLATORS EXEMPTED SCHOOLS FROM TEXTBOOK BUYS
For six consecutive school years [2011-16] after the global economy tanked in 2008-09, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature allowed public school districts to divert their textbook allocation – $33 million annually – to operational expenses such as electric bills and maintenance costs.
The State Department of Education [SDE] requested $66 million from the Legislature to purchase new reading textbooks in the current 2017-18 school year. The agency was appropriated nothing for that.
According to Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the SDE, the Education Department has requested $58.65 million to pay for new math textbooks in FY ‘19. Each math book costs approximately $85, SDE officials report.
POCOLA SCHOOLS IN DIRE STRAITS, PARENT CLAIMS
A parent who lives in Pocola, which is in LeFlore County near the Arkansas state line, has lamented the infrastructure, educational and transportation needs in that school district.
“It’s difficult for a school to afford security guards and/or metal detectors when the school has rusty water faucets and toilets that are malfunctioning,” she writes. “Some sinks have stubs where faucets were before but aren’t now.”
Also, “There is rust on the toilets, specifically in the third and fourth grade girls’ bathroom that I’ve seen firsthand.”
The Pocola woman, who is a lifetime resident of the town but works in Arkansas, experiences “incredible guilt” from sending her child to local schools while in neighboring Arkansas “they teach coding,” she said. “Each child has a laptop, starting in junior high. In Pocola, they’re operating off computers that are 15 or more years old.”
Pocola’s school buses are not equipped with heat or air conditioning and the seats are torn “from years of overuse,” the woman said.
District voters defeated a $3.6 million school bond issue in 2013, a $4.48 million school bond issue in 2014, a $5.1 million school bond issue in 2015, and a $6 million school bond issue in 2017, records reflect. Rejection of the bond issues was attributed at least in part to reports that property taxes in the Pocola school district would have increased by approximately 15%.
Conditions in the schools have become so dire, the Pocola parent said, that district residents are considering a grassroots campaign to establish a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization that would collect tax-deductible contributions with which to buy new textbooks and finance repairs to school facilities.
– Mike W. Ray is a fifth-generation newsman who has been a journalist for 49 years. He was a reporter and/or editor on newspapers in Oklahoma [Lawton Constitution, Stillwater NewsPress, Muskogee Phoenix, OKC Friday, Pawnee Chief and the Yale News] and Texas [Odessa American and Borger News-Herald], worked as a media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 19 years, covers city government in The Village and Nichols Hills, and is a general-assignment freelancer. His parents published The Yale News for 35 years and his grandparents published The Vici Beacon for 30 years.