TULSA — Tulsa Public Schools is considering reorganizing its Indian Education Department as part of its efforts to address a multi-million dollar shortfall for the coming school year.
As proposed, the district’s Indian Education Department would go from having seven resource advisers to three that would primarily work with secondary students, with four additional teacher assistants placed at elementary schools. The district has about 3,000 Indigenous students across all grades.
The salaries of the seven resource advisers are all paid through federal Title VI funding. Since they are all certified teachers, they automatically qualify for the pay raises that were mandated by the Oklahoma legislature after the 2018 teacher walkout. However, the revenue stream did not increase to accommodate the increased personnel costs.
“The whole funding stream for the advisers and the office manager has to come from Title VI funding,” TPS Language and Cultural Services Executive Director Laura Grisso said Tuesday night before the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission. “We can’t piecemeal it.”
The seven resource advisers were appraised of the situation Jan. 15 and told they would be reassigned to other positions across the district. If the plan is approved, they could apply for the three remaining Indian Education positions, which would be on 12-month contracts, but would not be subject to Indian hiring preference.
“Our Native American children are going to be the ones who suffer from this decision,” TPS Indian Education resource adviser Erin Parker said. “It’s not about us and what we feel. It’s about providing the best for these students and they’re the ones who’re going to suffer if this decision happens.”
The district is facing a $20 million shortfall thanks in part to more than a decade’s worth of cuts in state aid. Although public school enrollment has grown by more than 50,000 students statewide over the last decade, common education funding is still 20 percent less than it was in 2009. State law requires school districts to operate with a balanced budget.
As part of its efforts to bridge the funding gap, TPS’s board of education voted Tuesday night to close four schools. Other cost-cutting measures being considered include adjusting bell times and recommending the elimination of 84 non-teaching positions.
The only money the program receives from the district’s General Fund is about $25,335 to cover indirect costs. The rest of the Indian Education Department’s funding comes from either tribal or federal sources, including car tag revenue from the Cherokee Nation, a Title VI grant and money through the Johnson O’Malley Program.
“The optics are so negative,” Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission Chairwoman Cheryl Cohenour said. “Everyone in this room understands and has been hearing about the shortfall…but if it is mismanagement of federal programs, that’s a significant concern.”
TPS has sites within the boundaries of the Osage, Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations and its Indian Education Program receives funding from two of those three tribes. In an email, Language and Cultural Services Executive Director Laura Grisso said the district has had an initial conversation via conference call about the proposed reorganization with Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Osage leaders.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill has already lodged his objections in writing to the proposal. A Cherokee Nation spokeswoman confirmed via email that a meeting has been requested with Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist about the proposal.
“Our biggest stakeholders are the tribes,” TPS Indian Education resource adviser Sheri Williams said. “They should have a voice in this decision. If anything, I understand budget crises and shortfalls. My request to this board is that TPS allow the Indian community to have a voice in this.”
Representatives from the Oklahoma Council on Indian Education and the National Indian Education Association attended the school board meeting Tuesday night but since it was not on the agenda, they were not allowed to speak about the proposed re-organization. The re-organization is tentatively scheduled to go before the school board in February.
“Who better to inform these decisions than the Indian community?” OCIE President-elect Alison Black said. “There aren’t any Natives serving on the school board and they’re the ones going to make the decisions.”
District officials have denied that the proposed reorganization was done in retaliation for grievances filed by several members of the Indian Education staff. The 13-page complaint filed with the district in December outlines concerns about the process followed to elevate the department’s coordinator position to a manager role.
The grievance also alleges that an employee from the district’s talent management department who dealt directly with Indian Education posted pictures of herself and her husband on social media wearing red face.
Grisso declined to comment on the grievance filed or the process followed by the district to investigate the claims made in it.
“We will not provide any comment regarding the personnel matters within that grievance other than to say that we have a variety of avenues to address specific concerns, and we have taken great care to address them in the appropriate forums—from informal to formal investigations, official findings and appeals of findings,” she said. “Also, every allegation pertaining to program compliance has been thoroughly investigated and addressed. Given the diligence we have taken in addressing each of the concerns, it is unfortunate that this document is garnering the attention it has.”