TULSA — Emotions ran high on Wednesday night at a special meeting of the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education.
A beloved teacher painfully confessed he had interviewed earlier in the day for a job outside the district. A Ph. D. got choked up talking about his daughter. A mom angrily, tearfully lamented the proposed closing of her children’s school. A retiree told the cold, hard truth. A librarian sobbed.
And a freshman volleyball player poured her heart out and implored the Board, “Don’t get rid of athletics.”
On the heels of a $6.7 million cutback last fiscal year, TPS faces additional projected budget cuts of $12.4 million, or a 6 percent reduction in funding.
It’s all the result of another anticipated reduction in state aid.
The district recently surveyed its residents, students, employees and others, and in more than 18,000 responses, superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist found that reduction of the athletics budget — either consolidation or elimination — was among the top three choices of parents, residents, teachers, staff, employees, principals and volunteers (but not students).
The result of that survey led to Wednesday’s proposal that the TPS athletics budget be reduced again, this time by $173,000, in the form of consolidating middle school football, volleyball, basketball and soccer, as well as elimination of high school athletic programs with low participation.
Under this proposal, any athletic teams on the middle school level will consist of students from two schools rather than one team per school.
That, of course, raises additional cost issues such as transportation, insurance and facilities maintenance.
In the big picture, it could be argued that athletics got off easy.
“There is a sacred cow in this state called football, and it must be challenged.”
— Dr. John Marlow, Ph. D. and former TPS student
Although the tenor inside the Mason Education Services Center never became uncivil, things did get particularly heated on the issue of elementary school consolidation (Remington Elementary and Park Elementary, ECDC Porter, a projected savings of $900,000), two-day teacher furloughs ($1.9 million), and staff and teacher cuts ($2 million), among other proposals.
The situation at the State Capitol, Gist said, is “not sustainable” and will “take us decades to recover from.”
Board member Amy Shelton recommended caution on the topic of athletics.
“We need to think carefully about how to allocate the sports,” Shelton said.
When the meeting turned to public comments, however — and included comments from Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum and former mayor Susan Savage — more impassioned stances emerged.
“There is a sacred cow in this state called football,” said Dr. John Marlow, “and it must be challenged.”
Marlow, now a Ph. D. and intake counselor at Street School, played basketball at Foster Middle School, attended East Central and calls himself a “two-time high school dropout.” But he thinks the best way to effect meaningful change in state education funding is to eliminate football altogether.
“I know no other way of singularly gaining the attention of the people who voted for a former football coach (Dave Rader) who is less qualified to go to the state (legislature) than our esteemed teacher (John Waldron).”
Rader defeated Waldron — the Booker T. Washington history teacher who tearfully announced Wednesday he had interviewed for a job outside the TPS district — for a District 39 State Senate seat.
“Athletics is an outlet for students to get scholarships for college and to just look forward to do something at the end of the day.”
— Caroline Whitney, Booker T. Washington volleyball player
“Why is he qualified to go to the state (senate)?” Marlow asked after the meeting. “Because people know his name. Because he was a football coach. I applaud his achievement on the field, but right now, we have an education crisis. We had an opportunity to send one of Tulsa’s finest government teachers into the state legislature, and (voters) chose not to. That’s a disappointment.
“We should cut football to get the attention of our residents who continuously vote for lower taxes and fail to support teachers in schools. The problem is not the legislators. The problem is that the people whom the school districts serve don’t understand now many resources go into serving their students, their families and their communities.
“We must demonstrate that failure to support our schools has consequences.”
Marlow addressed the board wearing a University of Tulsa ballcap. He said he went to TU, attends a TU football game once in awhile and valued his time in athletics. But high school and college sports, he said, have become something else.
“I think there was a time when athletic events did kind of bring us together,” he said, “but now I believe we have way too much focus, energy and resources on athletics for athletics’ sake. I think every college campus that’s Division I, it’s been professionalized.”
Former state representative Jeannie McDaniel followed Marlow and said, “We can’t wait for the price of oil to go up so our kids can graduate.”
Chris Van Denhende, a Rogers grad and current president of the Rogers Booster Club, said he has a master’s degree from Oklahoma City University, is a CPA and spends “my entire life doing budgets,” but is baffled by the ongoing budget crisis and thinks it would be “a crime to ask teachers to give up part of their salary.”
“We had ‘eliminate athletics’ on the survey for a reason. It is unfortunately something, along with many other terrible choices, that we’re having to consider.”
— Deborah Gist, TPS superintendent
Consolidating athletics, Van Denhende told the Board, “will destroy athletics. Athletics builds an esprit de corps within the school. It builds spirit. And if kids are going to different schools, you might as well just get rid of it and send kids to participate on AAU and club teams. I think that would be a huge, huge mistake.”
The highlight of the night came next from Caroline Whitney, a freshman on the Booker T. Washington volleyball team and a member of the Junior ROTC.
“Don’t get rid of athletics for high schoolers, or consolidate them,” she said. “That ruins school spirit. Athletics is an outlet for students to get scholarships for college and to just look forward to do something at the end of the day.”
Whitney broke down in tears when recounting Waldron’s decision to look for work outside the district.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “I really want to find a way to not have a lot of furlough days because I need teachers like Mr. Waldron, and my English teacher, and people like him that support me and stay after school, and get up really early in the morning and stay until like 7 at night. Because those are the teachers that care. Those are the teachers that make a difference.
“Students need teachers like Mr. Waldron. He’s a role model. He’s so great and I haven’t even had him for a whole semester!”
Gist said the district faces “terrible” choices, and those were laid out in the survey.
“Our athletics programs are about a $2 million investment each year,” she said. “They are extraordinarily important for a lot of different reasons. What students learn from being on a team in terms of teamwork and leadership and discipline and perseverance. There are so many things you learn. There is a connection you heard tonight in terms of school spirit. It’s a way we keep kids in school. We keep their grades up. There are scholarship opportunities. There are so many reasons why it’s part of a well-rounded education.
“But we had ‘eliminate athletics’ on the survey for a reason. It is unfortunately something, along with many other terrible choices, that we’re having to consider. If we’re in this situation next year … the choices that we’re doing this year come off the table. So it’s a difficult situation.”
Cutting athletics — and starting with football — would be extremely unpopular. But Marlow thinks it would serve a higher purpose.
“The only reason why I would propose the radical step of cutting football is because I know that, on a dime, residents of Oklahoma would rise up and support the schools,” he said. “I say cut it. Remove it. ‘We’re not playing football this year because we do not have the money.’
“Our current legislature, by all accounts, is not a body made up of complex thinkers. But we deserve the representative body we have, because we have voted for them.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.