Mention the term “school consolidation” and some people think of improving students’ education by busing them from small rural school districts to larger urban or suburban ones. But, in Oklahoma, smaller schools and districts may be providing quality educations. Some information released last week by an interim study on school consolidation rocked the boats of several school administrators in small communities in our state.
Some of the waves rocking the boats were produced by a misunderstanding between Representative Joe Dorman (D-Rush Springs) and Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Hickman. Dorman said in an Oct. 3 release, “I want to apologize to Jeff for misunderstanding his intent with the interim study on school restructuring. When I first read his handout spelling out 32 Oklahoma communities which could be at risk, I was worried this was the beginning of efforts to shut down these schools. I did not realize he was taking on his own Republican leadership and their desire to eliminate many rural schools in Oklahoma for the sake of perceived budget savings.”
Dorman’s own press release on the subject said, “Representative Hickman issued a press release clarifying he had a legislative study to consider Gov. Mary Fallin’s call this summer for a debate about the structure of school systems in Oklahoma. In June Governor Fallin had spoken at the Oklahoma Press Association Convention in which she stated that Oklahoma had too many school districts and voluntary consolidations and shared services will be a part of the discussion on public schools, which she hopes to make a key point of her legislative agenda next year.”
Dorman continued, “Representative Hickman discussed options of creating a panel similar to the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program which looks at military installations,” said Rep. Dorman. “I would hope any similar panel reviewing school district lines would not be given ultimate authority via an appointment by the governor. I would hope a system of checks and balances would be in place to allow legislators to defend their areas with logical, rational arguments to retain local control of their school decisions.”
The schools listed for discussion are: Schulter, Earlsboro, Cave Springs, Carney, Bokoshe, Asher, Milburn, Cement, Braggs, Gracemont, Olustee, McCurtain, Lookeba Sickles, Midway, Butner, Panola, Pittsburg, Dover, Davidson, Kinta, Red Oak, Indianola, Buffalo Valley, Duke, Mill Creek, Lone Wolf, Gage, Bluejacket, Stringtown, Temple, Goodwell, and Aline-Cleo. Of these 32, one-fourth, or eight of them are in Southwest Oklahoma, west of Hwy. 81 and south of I-40 and bound by our western and southern statelines. These are: Cement, Gracemont, Olustee, Lookeba Sickles, Davison, Duke, Lone Wolf, and Temple.
In defense of two of these communities in his district, Cement and Temple, Dorman explained, “Rep. Hickman used hypothetical criteria for school consolidation of schools with less than 250 students, serving less than 200 square miles, receiving state aid of at least $200,000 and having an average composite ACT score below the state average or unreported,” said Dorman. “When I saw the list of the schools, I was livid as I know the efforts made by the communities involved to produce the best quality students and how much the entirety of the communities work together to support their schools. I had a staff member visit with Representative Hickman’s office about the information he distributed, but it was not clear on my part that he was fighting on the same side to defend these small towns.”
“I was involved in helping Cement protect their school the last time this discussion came up and it is definitely an emotional issue for me when it comes to the communities I represent. I would ask him to forgive me for the misunderstanding.”
Dorman said the school consolidation issue is an important one given it’s election time. “As we are about one month from the elections, now is the time for all candidates to state exactly how they stand on school consolidation, especially if it affects their home areas,” said Rep. Dorman. “The last thing we need is some hidden agenda by potential elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike.” Dorman also added, “I would also call on Governor Fallin to immediately release any plans regarding school consolidation so the voters will know what questions to ask their candidates running for legislative offices.”
Representaive Charles Ortega said, “In response to the Governor’s statement to a group of folks that our school system needed restructuring, Rep. Jeff Hickman, who favors de-regulation over consolidation, preemptively requested an interim study to determine exactly how restructuring might be approached. He used hypothetical criteria as an example. Without seeking clarification about the intent of the study or the purpose, there was another member that sounded an alarm to all superintendants that school consolidation was about to happen.”
Ortega said, “That action was very irresponsible on that member’s part. This is the type of irresponsibility that creates an atmosphere and mindset of negativity, fear and concern. Absolutely unnecessary! As members of the legislature, we have a responsibility to look after our districts and keep them informed, but it is of utmost importance that we be responsible with whatever information we provide. Unfortunately, that was not the case in this particular instance.”
He added, “I have had several calls on this issue and all the misinformation has caused unnecessary concern.”
While we continue to search for ways to improve learning opportunities for our children, funding continues to be the biggest challenge. Ortega remarked, “In Southwest Oklahoma we know our school districts struggle to maintain those opportunities, but also know they do an excellent job fulfilling and maximizing their fiscal responsibilities. As in the past, we will continue to monitor this particular issue and continue to keep our districts informed.”
Education is not “us against them”, whomever them may be. It is about all of us working together to recognize and provide the best opportunities for our children K-12.
Ortega said to his constituents, “If anyone has any questions or concerns they can call 405-557-7369 and I will be glad to visit with them about it.”