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In Oklahoma schools, bosses are helping teachers go on strike

In Oklahoma schools, bosses are helping teachers go on strike
A teacher and her students say the Pledge of Allegiance in a Tulsa, Okla., classroom. (Mike Simons / Tulsa World)

Earlier this month, Melissa Abdo visited a class of future schoolteachers — education majors at Oklahoma State University.

"How many of you are considering teaching in Oklahoma?" she asked them.

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Of the roughly 20 students in the class, a single hand went into the air.

"I don't think Oklahoma wants me," one student told Abdo, a board member for Jenks Public Schools in suburban Tulsa.

Abdo said this week that she was embarrassed for Oklahoma, where teachers haven't had an across-the-board raise in 10 years, leaving them with some of the lowest pay in the nation.

So she and members of other school boards across the state have taken a highly unusual step: They're helping their workers go on strike.

When teachers — or for that matter, workers in any field — strike, it's usually a showdown with the bosses. That's what happened when teachers in Chicago went on strike in 2012 to force better contract terms from the nation's third-largest school district.

But in Oklahoma — as with the recent nine-day teacher's strike in West Virginia — the traditional battle lines between workers and management have gotten blurred as both sides take aim at a bigger target: the state Legislature.

Across the state, teachers are getting a boost from superintendents and school boards as they prepare to walk off the job Monday unless the Legislature significantly raises their pay.

At school board meetings, superintendents have given presentations to board members and curious parents about how a teacher walkout would work — and how they could support, and not oppose, a strike that would affect hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma students.

"It is unusual for any kind of strike, but it points to just how awful the situation is," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest public-sector unions. "What you are seeing right now is a fight for public education, because the school boards are saying, 'How are we going to get teachers for this and the next generation of kids?'"

At least 172 Oklahoma school districts, with 500,000 students, are prepared to close for at least a day if teachers go on strike, according to a survey released this week by the Oklahoma State School Boards Assn. and other state education groups. A total of 48 school districts, with more than 230,000 students, said they were prepared to close indefinitely.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the school board association, said that among the state's 513 districts, he had not heard of a school board that had rejected the idea of a walkout.

"Our board members, while they're not leading the strike ... they understand the frustration of our teachers," Hime said, noting that Oklahoma's low property taxes force schools to rely more heavily on state funding than their counterparts in neighboring states.

Starting pay for a teacher in Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree is $31,600 — a figure set by the Legislature. The state's average salary for public school teachers is $45,276, lower than in any state except Mississippi and South Dakota, according to the most recently available data from the National Education Assn.

The Oklahoma Education Assn. has said a strike will begin unless lawmakers guarantee $10,000 raises over the next three years. The last teacher's strike in the state occurred in 1990 and prompted a conservative backlash against new taxes.

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"I feel like I'm in 'Back to the Future,'" Janet Dunlop, the superintendent of Broken Arrow Public Schools, said at a March 12 meeting of the suburban Tulsa district, which gets more than 40% of its funding from the state.

Dunlop recalled how she joined in as a student-teacher during the 1990 strike. "I remember the angst I felt, and I felt like I was almost betraying what I fought so hard to do."

Now, even with a job that would normally place her on the other side of the table during labor negotiations, she still sounded like a teacher ready to march on the state Capitol in Oklahoma City and demand legislators raise pay.

"I think that we all would agree: No one wants this to happen," Dunlop said of a strike, according to a video recording of the meeting. "But you also get to a point where you don't believe the promises [from state lawmakers] anymore and you need it to happen."

That day, Broken Arrow's five school board members unanimously approved a plan to suspend school for up to 25 days to support the teachers' plans to go on strike.

"We've exhausted every single effort. We've tried negotiation, we've tried conversations," board clerk Jerry Denton said at the meeting, referring to lobbying state legislators. "Every single thing has been done to try and alleviate these issues."

While state law forbids teachers from going on strike when collectively bargaining with school boards, it says nothing about striking to pressure the state Legislature.

If the situation gets dire, it will be difficult for the state to bring in replacement teachers.

As of last December, Oklahoma had issued more than 1,800 emergency certifications to new teachers who lacked the usual qualifications to get hired, a figure that has soared over the last five years but still pales in comparison to Oklahoma's 41,000 teachers.

"There aren't teachers to replace our current teachers," Hime said.

But the teachers, and the districts, also face a tough climb at the Capitol, where even a traditional supermajority of lawmaker support wouldn't be enough.

Following the 1990 strike, conservative forces tried but failed to repeal the education bill won by teachers, which boosted pay, increased funding for schools and capped class sizes.

However, conservatives later succeeded in passing a statewide ballot measure that required 75% of lawmakers voting in favor to pass any future tax increases — the toughest such requirement in the nation.

That means any bill that increases taxes to fund teacher raises will probably need support from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 1.

It's not that Oklahoma's political establishment doesn't want to boost teacher pay. But recent proposals to spend more on education, including raising pay, have foundered as lawmakers failed to assemble massive-enough majorities.

A $581-million plan embraced by state business leaders and Republican lawmakers was defeated in the state House of Representatives in February, with 63 lawmakers voting yes and 35 voting no — falling well below the threshold needed to raise taxes.

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This week, lawmakers tried again, with the House voting 79 to 19 on Monday and the Senate voting 36 to 10 on Thursday to approve a tax bill that would raise average teacher pay by about $6,000 — still short of what teachers are demanding.

It would mark the first time the state Legislature has raised taxes since the 75% voting threshold was implemented in 1992.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has said she will sign, adding, "Those voting yes answered the call from the public by voting teachers a pay raise and putting the state on a solid foundation for the future."

The response from teachers?

"We are walking," the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers union tweeted, citing poll numbers showing that 79% of members still supported a walkout.

Statewide polling numbers from the "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time Is Now!" Facebook group, which has more than 70,000 members, showed 81% support for a strike.

Teachers and school districts are now preparing for how to feed and care for students if classes are halted. In Jenks, the district published information on how community members could donate to a local food bank to support teacher-organized meals for students.

The Clinton school district, in rural western Oklahoma, recommended parents form co-ops or contact local churches for child-care options, with the district planning to provide limited child care and free breakfast and lunch at a few schools.

Floyd Simon Jr., a member of the Clinton Public Schools board, recalled losing several standout teachers to school districts in Texas that boosted their pay by $10,000 to $20,000.

"I would not normally be a person that would support striking, because our entire goal as a school board is to do what's best for kids and the schools, and in most cases you'd think having school is the best thing for them," Simon said. "But sometimes drastic times mean drastic measures."

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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