Editor’s notebook: a Union president, a Career Tech superintendent, a Democratic critic

Educators in the news, in brief: A union president, a CareerTech superintendent, and a Democratic critic of new public school funding policies.

The Oklahoma City local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, AFL-CIO) has submitted to the local school board his blueprint to increase teacher accountability and responsibility, and improve classroom performance. 

The plan from Oklahoma City AFT President Ed Allen also addresses other school policies. 

Allen said, “Our relationship with district leadership has never been better, but it can and should be much more.” The union’s Blueprint focuses on quality teaching and development, student achievement and behavior, school improvement and reform, contractual elements and collaboration.

The plan “suggests developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that is fair to both educators and administrators, establishing a meaningful teacher-led professional development system that helps teachers gain new skills and reviewing seniority to ensure the best teachers stay in the district.”

The union a new longer school year (“continuous learning calendar”) can “provide the time and tools for students and teachers to be successful.” The Blueprint also backs intensive focus on reading and “an enforceable student behavior plan.”

The Blueprint “suggests new methods for addressing ineffective principals and recommends special attention be given to recruiting and retaining master level teachers for hard-to-staff schools.” A “career ladder compensation system” intends, he says, to recognize progress, and would support more community and parental involvement. 

The AFT participated in a dramatic restructuring of U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City, moving out about half of the failing school’s teacher workforce. Some of those teachers were reassigned, while others left the profession.

In the new Blueprint, the AFT “recommends a review of the district’s collective bargaining agreement to address onerous or obsolete language and insert relevant language regarding school restructuring. The Blueprint also suggests piloting a streamlined contract to allow for flexibility and site-based team decision making when opening new schools.” 

As for teacher terminations, the union has called for creation of a “collaborative environment.” This could be established around “the use of an independent hearing officer in termination hearings to ensure fairness and impartiality.”

Allen reflected, “We know we don’t have all the answers. Our Blueprint outlines a general direction for change and calls for a respected leadership team to nurture the process so that real reform is embedded in our school system. Our proposals are serious and deserve serious consideration.”

The state’s traditionally dominant teachers’ union is the Oklahoma Education Association, affiliate of the powerful NEA. The AFT is the bargaining agent for the Oklahoma City district. A third group, Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) has several thousand members in smaller districts. 

Allen has taken a non-traditional approach in advocating for his members. 

Last November, at the Oklahoma premiere of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Allen described some actions taken by national teachers’ union leaders as “indefensible.” He said during a panel discussion, “I am willing to discuss any issue that needs to be discussed. I don’t have any issue with the question that change is needed, but we want to be at the table. …

“It’s close, it’s within reach. You can almost taste the possibility of real change. It’s within our grasp. We’re going to make it happen.” 
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In our interview, Superintendent Kara Gae Neal of Tulsa Tech defended her system’s high carry-overs in both building funds and general funds. 

Neal, who is paid $140,000 annually and garners a $12,000 annuity, runs the state’s largest CareerTech, working with a seven-member elected board. 

She administers a complex that includes officers for career services, health sciences, a campus and a Training Center. The Tulsa Tech system she runs includes campuses at Broken Arrow, Peoria, Riverside and Sand Springs. 

Tulsa Tech’s building fund is derived from a property tax (ad valorem) levy of five mills, collected annually. One mill generates about $5 million. Neal said,  “Our service area is defined by 14 school district boundaries covering all of Tulsa County and portions of 7 surrounding counties.”

The system’s training centers are focused on particular industry sectors such as aviation, information technology, and automotive/robotics/manufacturing, including CNG (compressed natural gas) conversion.
Also in the system’s taxpayer-financed base is 8.3 millions annually for the general fund. 

Neal estimated business and industry services reach 40,000 “new and incumbent workers trained each year.” Of 130 programs, most “have continuous waiting lists. To accommodate this growing demand, we are buying and developing on-line training as well as compressed offerings to better meet the scheduling needs of adult clients. Also, we are a national testing center for hundreds of certifications for our students and for those who may have received training elsewhere, i.e., on the job.” 

Elaborating on carry-overs, she said revenue collections are uneven, and dwindle “as early as April to service providers. We must carry enough to cover bills through 6-8 months. For us that is $2+ million a month. Thus the $18-20 million we keep in reserve.”

Neal said the tax-financed system is free to high school students and less than $3 an hour for adults, and that college credit is available in some programs. She continued, “With a 30 percent high school dropout rate in Tulsa County, our General Fund allows us to operate computerized learning labs known as Success Centers at each of our 5 locations. Open evenings and summers, 800-1000 students have received support for credit recovery, credit advancement, GED, ACT Prep, and so forth, from a staff of highly qualified teachers and counselors. We receive no reimbursement in any form for this service for which operational expenses are $100,000 per site annually.”
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Initial reactions to state Superintendent Janet Barresi’s Fiscal Year 2012 education budget plan were positive, but Democratic Rep. Ed Cannaday of Porum criticized her and a majority of the state Board of Education for not funding the national teacher certification.
Cannaday said that defunding a $5,000 individual boost for Board Certified teachers “will have a negative effect on the income of approximately 3,000 teachers.” He complained there was no chance to review Barresi’s priorities, and board members did not address the absence of certification funding.

Cannaday, who represents Haskell, Le Flore, McIntosh, Muskogee and Sequoyah counties, said, “This year the House and Senate leaders chose to ignore this commitment and sent Superintendent Barresi a budget that gave her the opportunity to wipe out funding for this program, which with her tie-breaking vote, she did.”