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Why Tulsa's Superintendent Stands With Her Striking Teachers

Okla-teacher-rally-600.jpg

When a busload of teachers left Tulsa early Monday for the state capitol to demand higher pay for teachers and more money for public schools, the city's schools superintendent, Deborah Gist, was right there with them.

Gist joined the rally of thousands of teachers, school workers, and supporters from around the state as they gathered in Oklahoma City on the first day of a statewide walkout. The superintendent was among a group of representatives who also spoke with legislators to thank them for voting last week to increase teacher pay by an average of $6,100 and to ask them to ensure that it will be adequately funded going forward.

On Tuesday, she hit the streets of Tulsa with teachers and other supporters who did not make it to the state capitol, but were around town supporting their colleagues. Students in the 39,000-Tulsa district were out of school for a second day in a row due to the walkouts. 

Gist said she supports the Oklahoma Education Association, which is calling for a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years, a $5,000 pay increase for school support staff, along with changes to retiree benefits. The association also wants the state to add $200 million to boost public school funding, which has been slashed in recent years and has forced many districts to switch to four-day weeks.

Gist, who became superintendent in Tulsa in 2015 after serving as the state education chief in Rhode Island, said she has seen "the detrimental effects of our under-investment in education."

"Our teachers are not only undercompensated from a competitive advantage—meaning we lose them to surrounding states that are willing to [pay them] many them many, many thousands of dollars more than what we do—but they are also undercompensated to the point where we can't provide them with a living wage," she said. "And that's just unconscionable."

Stories have abounded of teachers working multiple jobs or selling their blood plasma to make ends meet. 

Given their already towering responsibilities and the physical, emotional, and intellectual toll of the job, teachers shouldn't have to do that, Gist said.

Teachers also put in a lot of extra hours, "especially in Oklahoma where we give them very little time during the day to plan and prepare," she said. Lesson planning and grading are done on the teachers' own time, in the evenings and on the weekends, she said.

Low pay has helped to contribute to the state's teacher shortage, Gist said. Tulsa has been losing about a quarter of its teachers—about 500—each year to neighboring states, other districts, and other careers in the last few years. While the move to other districts can be a lateral move in terms of compensation, it may be less stressful than teaching in an urban district, she said.

Even with intense recruitment and an onboarding process that includes professional development the summer before teachers start the job and mentoring for new teachers, attracting educators can be a tough sell.

'Enough Is Enough'

Gist is hopeful that the pay increase signed by Gov. Mary Fallin last week as part of a $447 million package will help change that trajectory.

As a district leader, Gist shares the teachers' concerns about the overall cuts to public education.

"Our teachers have taken the brunt of these cuts on their shoulders for so long, and they have soldiered on because that's the people they are," she said. "I think what happened is that they are seeing the more direct impacts that these cuts have on their students. And that's when they really got to the point of saying that 'enough is enough.'

"They had taken it and taken it, and they started to see that this isn't just the teachers [salaries] that are underfunded," she continued. "This means that our students are missing out on classes, and opportunities, and exposure to programs and resources they need to be successful. Those are just as important tools and resources for our teachers to have to be able to effectively instruct children." 

As for when students will be back in school, Gist said that she is following the lead of the Oklahoma Education Association and the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. As long as teachers are out, schools will be closed, she said. 

The district has been supportive of the teachers, with Gist, the school board, and the union signing a "commitment card" earlier this month in support of a "work the contract" (meaning that teachers would work the hours that were in their contract) and a walkout if one became necessary.  

But not all of the state's districts are on board with the continued walkouts. While the Western Heights school district in Oklahoma City was closed on Monday to allow teachers and school employees to attend the rally, New 9 reported that teachers in the small district of about 3, 600 students were ordered to return to work on Tuesday or they could be disciplined.  

Some Tulsa nonprofits and faith-based organizations are providing childcare, breakfast, and lunch for families, Gist said. The district has also committed to paying support staff through April 6, and is exploring other options beyond that, she said.  

"None of us wanted this walkout to begin with," she said. "Our teachers want to be in classrooms. They want to be with our students in school. They are only doing what is necessary in order to ensure that we are advocating on behalf of our kids. We'll continue talking with them every single day" to figure out what will happen next.

Photo caption: Keagan Nedrow, left, and Reed Nedrow, bottom right, stand with their mother, Tara Nedrow, right, who teaches history at Union High School, during a teacher rally against low school funding at the state capitol in Oklahoma City on April 2. --Sue Ogrocki/AP

 

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