Early morning rally staged at OKC district school
An early morning rally for public education at U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City drew teachers and students and the ire of their leader.
Principal Greg Frederick voiced his displeasure with lawmakers over funding cuts he said cost the 1,900-student school 20 teachers, two assistant principals and other positions.
“I am angry at our Legislature. I'm angry at the embarrassment that each legislative session brings us when it comes to education and the amount of things that are put out from the legislative committee that have absolutely nothing to do with education,” he told the crowd.
“The second thing that I'm angry about and most angry about is the fact that they could have fixed this. They could have done something instead of doing nothing. But they didn't. They didn't and you are feeling the effects.”
Dozens of Grant students, some holding signs that read “Our Education Matters” and “Help Our Schools,” turned out for the rally, which began as the sun was coming up outside the school, 5016 S Pennsylvania Ave.
It was sponsored in part by the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union that bargains on behalf of more than 2,000 teachers in the Oklahoma City school district.
Nationally, more than 200 cities participated in walk-ins for public education sponsored by The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, an assemblage of parent, youth and community organizations and labor groups fighting for educational justice and equity in access to school resources and opportunities.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora also spoke at the rally.
Dunnington, who has two children who attend schools in the Oklahoma City district, blamed legislators for harming public education.
“We're the ones who have been cutting money continually, year after year after year and taking needed resources out of your school,” he said. “This morning, in front of all of you students and some of your parents who are here, I'm going to apologize, because the Legislature hasn't done right by you. And it's time for that to change.”
Dunnington expressed frustration over large class sizes and teachers who work second jobs to make ends meet.
Lora authorized $30 million in cuts to salaries and services before the start of the 2016-17 school year. She told the crowd she was forced to make decisions “that are not good for the kids at Grant High School or any other school in our state.”
“There are a lot of people who wondered, ‘Why would you want to be superintendent in a place that's making massive cuts to education, that's sending a message to the kids and teachers that they don't care, and that it's not important,'” she said.
“The truth is, and the reason I wanted to be superintendent here, is because of kids like you and teachers like the teachers at U.S. Grant ... because you guys deserve the very best education.”
If State Question 779, which authorizes a penny sales tax, is approved by voters Nov. 8, public school teachers would receive a $5,000 pay raise and nearly 70 percent of the new revenue would go to public schools.
That, proponents say, would help reverse the trend of quality teachers leaving Oklahoma for higher-paying positions in surrounding states. Others are strongly opposed to adding another penny to the state's sales tax burden.
Melissa Smith, a criminal justice teacher with two masters degrees, is paid less than $35,000 annually and is saddled with $165,000 in student loans.
Smith, Grant's senior class sponsor, wears many hats. She also advises the student council and coordinates Link Crew, a mentoring program for freshmen.
“U.S. Grant is my home, and these Generals are my kids,” she said Thursday, fighting back tears. “I'm here today to ask you why education is not a priority in the state of Oklahoma. Teaching is the one career that makes other professions possible.”
Senior Alanis Navarrette, 17, Grant's student council president, spoke about the need for quality teachers.
“Teachers are the foundation of education. And how do we expect to have stable futures without the encouragement and dedication of our teachers?” she said.
“The same teachers who have given us doctors, lawyers, scientists, police officers, firemen and many more careers are the same teachers our state is cutting from our schools.”
Navarrette pointed to funding cuts that have resulted in cuts to “sports, classes and even the air conditioning in our building.”
“Yes, our state is evolving beautifully,” she continued. “But imagine how wonderful our education would be if our education would evolve beautifully as well.”