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Local PTAs help raise funds for school programs

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When 10-year-old Eleanor Fairclough goes back to Cleveland Elementary School after summer vacation, she expects one of her favorite teachers, the school’s visual arts educator, won’t be there to greet her.

The incoming fifth-grader looks forward to the painting lessons and likes special assignments, like the time she drew an apple for her teacher. Fairclough says the school’s visual arts program made her a better artist.

Fairclough wrote in black marker on white posterboard, “This sign would be more creative, but you’ve cut my art teacher.” She held the sign high at the state Capitol two days before the legislative session ended. Her brother, Callum — who completed kindergarten last week — held a sign that read “Oklahoma’s future.”

“I want him to learn how to paint and draw,” Fairclough said as she looked at her younger brother, also a Cleveland student. “I want him to experience art.”

Many of Oklahoma City Public Schools’ (OKCPS) extracurricular programs and activities have been axed or whittled away. In the wake of state budget cuts and loss of $12 million in federal funding, the state’s largest school district eliminated 208 classroom teachers and 92 administrators for the coming school year.

Additionally, district leaders are delaying textbook purchases, shrinking school supply budgets, reducing funding for athletic equipment and uniforms and eliminating funding for students to take Advanced Placement and college placement exams. Beginning July 1, the district will operate with 25 percent less allocated to athletics and fine arts.

Like Fairclough, fellow OKCPS students Audrey Bacharach and Elaine Starkey are saddened that their school, Nichols Hills Elementary, will be without a visual arts teacher and strings music teacher next school year.

“All of the things gone are my favorites,” said Bacharach, who plays violin and starts fifth grade in August. “At our school, we have three specials: art, music and physical education. They are taking away art and music. Why art?”

The loss or reduction of school programs, along with schools offering larger class sizes and fewer course offerings next academic year, drove parents and students in recent weeks to the Capitol to advocate for funding solutions. Students from local secondary schools, including Classen School of Advanced Studies, U.S. Grant, Northwest Classen, Star Spencer and Jefferson, walked out of classes to protest the drastic cuts and loss of their favorite teachers.

During that time, parents and community members also called the district, offering to plug dollars back into the $30 million budget hole. Some Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) proposed fundraisers to help afford the costs of a teacher or program affected by the budget cut.

District dilemma

Such offerings presented a quandary for the district, which promoted leaders to create a task force to evaluate fundraising options for teacher salaries.

The problem is twofold: Current district policy fails to address donations toward teacher salaries, but it calls for ensuring students receive equal educational opportunities. Hence, one school PTA funding an art teacher’s salary could be unfair, as another school PTA might not have the capacity to do the same.

Current policy welcomes gifts, donations and grants to the district “provided the conditions of assistance do not remove any degree of control of the school district from the board and will not cause inequitable treatment of any students or student groups,” according to policy titled “Public gifts/donations to the schools.”

District administrators, PTA representatives and parents serve on the newly established task force, which is expected to report their findings and suggestions to the OKCPS Board of Education at Monday night’s meeting.

Last month, a district official said the task force would review new state guidelines for allowing adjunct educators to teach courses cut by the district. Additionally, partnerships with outside agencies could be explored to offer fine arts programs in schools without a fine arts teacher.

Since 87 schools of the district’s 88 school sites receive Title 1 funds from the U.S. Department of Education, district officials said they are mindful of mandatory comparability reports. Title 1 funds are allocated based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches. The funds bridge the gap between low-income students and other students, typically supporting supplemental reading and math instruction. Districts must ensure schools’ state and local funds are equitable before adding Title 1 funds to budgets.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Fiscal Guidance Comparability under No Child Left Behind, private funds can support teacher salaries. To calculate comparability, state and local funds — not outside funding sources — are solely used. Officials from the Oklahoma State Department of Education confirmed the measure but also stressed comparability reports require districts to offer the same positions at comparable school sites.

The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools accepts donations to help fund supplies, equipment and exam fees that have been cut or eliminated by the district.

Cleveland and Nichols Hills PTAs are raising funds to support their schools’ visual arts program, but how those funds will be used aren’t clear. Until the district determines or updates specific fundraising policies, parents and students like Fairclough, Bacharach and Starkey are left imagining what next year will be like.

Two years ago, Bacharach and Starkey’s math teacher said he was leaving OKCPS because he couldn’t earn enough money to support his family. Now, two of the school’s fine arts teachers are out of work.

“We are the future,” Starkey said.

Print headline: Budget aftermath, District cuts prompt a fundraising task force to determine policy for supporting teacher salaries.

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