Public outcry as Tulsa Public Schools considers reducing Indian Education footprint

Photo caption: A Tulsa Public Schools Board meeting on Jan. 21. CODY HAMMER/Osage News

TULSA — Native parents, students and employees are speaking out at the possibility of the state’s second largest school district shrinking its Indian Education program due to financial woes.

As part of its efforts to shore up a $20 million budget shortfall for the 2020-2021 school year, Tulsa Public Schools officials confirmed on Jan. 17 that 84 non-teaching positions across the district have been recommended for elimination. Among them are four of the seven resource advisers for the district’s Indian Education Program, potentially leaving just three advisers to work with the more than 3,000 Indigenous students in TPS.

According to one of the resource advisers, the reorganization plan calls for the seven advisers to be reassigned to other openings within the district. They could apply for the three remaining Indian Education positions, which would be on 12-month contracts and deal only with secondary students. However, Indian preference would not be applied to those positions.

One of the district’s Indian Education resource advisers, Erin Parker is Kiowa, Cherokee, Kickapoo and Absentee Shawnee. Like her colleagues, she works with about 500 students spread across multiple schools and grade levels on everything from scholarship applications to cultural programming to securing after school tutors. In addition to her obligations as a resource adviser, she was assigned to teach a Native American literature class at one of the district’s middle schools this fall.

Parker and her colleagues were advised of the potential reorganization in a meeting Jan. 15 with district officials.

“Our Native American children are going to be the ones who suffer from this decision,” she 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.”  

Restricted speech

Along with Indian Education employees, community members and Native TPS families, representatives from both the National Indian Education Association and the Oklahoma Council on Indian Education attended the Jan. 21 school board meeting. Despite signing up to do so, they were not recognized to speak during the comment period on the district’s staffing plan, which does not include Indian Education. As was the case with other departments facing layoffs, the proposed reorganization was not specifically listed on the agenda and is not scheduled to be addressed by the board until February.

“At a future meeting, we look forward to hearing from you,” Board President Shawna Keller said over shouts of objection from Indian Education supporters in the back of the room.  

Although comments on the matter were restricted at TPS’ Board of Education meeting, several students, employees and community members sounded off about the proposed cuts across town at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission.

Tulsa Native Youth Board

Among those voicing their concerns were five members of the Tulsa Native Youth Board, one of the programs under the auspices of the Indian Education Department.

“If these adviser positions are going to be reorganized after all the positions are cut, will there not be excessive downtime?” Booker T. Washington High School junior Parrish Pipestem asked. “Will the youth programs have to just take a hiatus and wait for this reorganization to happen? How are we going to work without these advisers that come to all the meetings to help make things happen?

“Title VI is designed to have community input in programs. Having community meetings after the creation of a plan makes it sounds like an afterthought. Shouldn’t community input be present throughout the creation?”

State cuts and decreasing enrollment

The district is facing the eight-figure gap thanks in part to more than a decade’s worth of cuts in state aid. Despite public school enrollment increasing by more than 50,000 students across Oklahoma since 2009 and legislators approving a teacher pay raise in 2018 after a statewide walkout, common education funding is still 20 percent less than it was a decade ago. State law requires school districts to operate with a balanced budget.

TPS officials have drawn funds from the district’s reserves in previous years in an effort to minimize the impact, but have exhausted that option. Further compounding the problem is that the district’s enrollment has been steadily declining, thus reducing its share of state aid. As of Oct. 1, the district has 36,520 students enrolled, a decrease of about 5,000 students since the 2004-2005 school year.

According to district data, 5.13 percent of TPS students are Native American with higher concentrations in the Daniel Webster and Edison high school feeder patterns in west and midtown Tulsa respectively. Other schools with sizeable Native populations include Bell Elementary on the northeast side and Mark Twain Elementary on the district’s northwest side. The latter will be closing at the end of the school year due to the budget situation and consolidated with Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy, while the former will be absorbing students from the board’s decision to close Jones Elementary.

Indian Education Program

Although the district is facing a shortfall, the specific decision to cut the Indian Education program has employees, families and community members befuddled, as the program is funded through federal and tribal dollars.

“I feel like we’re having to explain who we are, what we do and how our funding works,” Parker said. “In the letter we received telling us we are losing our jobs, they said it wasn’t based upon performance, it is based upon the financial crisis in the district. We’re not taking money from them. We’re bringing something in.”

TPS has campuses within the boundaries of the Osage, Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations and according to the 2019-2020 Indian Education budget, about one-third of its funds come from the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations. In a letter addressed to Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist dated Jan. 20, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill objected to the proposed cut and re-organization.

“The Indian Education Program provides a great service to our Native American students attending Tulsa Public Schools,” Hill wrote. “It is my hope that you will reconsider your decision to eliminate the staff positions within the Tulsa Public Schools Indian Education Program.”

Speaking for the Cherokee Nation at the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission, Adam McCrary said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., has been in contact with TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist and was promised a consultation session before any changes are formally brought to the school board.

The remaining two-thirds of the budget comes from federal grants that are allocated on a per-pupil basis, including Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Speaking before the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission on Jan. 21, TPS Language and Cultural Services Executive Director Laura Grisso said the proposed reorganization and layoffs were in part because the federal grant that funds the program did not increase to accommodate the pay raises for certified staff mandated by the Oklahoma legislature. All seven of the program’s resource advisers are certified teachers.

“The whole funding stream for the advisers and the office manager has to come from Title VI funding,” she said. “We can’t piecemeal it.”

Should the proposal be approved, the funding that was considered insufficient to pay for four of the certified resource advisers would instead be used to pay for additional teacher assistants, who are not certified teachers and therefore not subject to the state-mandated pay raises. Currently, the department has four non-certified employees paid for with Title VI funding who are tutors for Native students at specific sites within the district.  

Title VI funding is also used to pay for an administrator to oversee the program. In 2018, the position was changed from a coordinator to a manager. With the title change, under the pay scale used by the district’s talent management department, the position incurred a $24,000 pay raise, which came out of Title VI funds.

“We are not allowed to dictate the salary range based on grant funding,” Grisso said. “There is nothing in the federal grant that says you can only pay a certain dollar amount for a specific position.”


Grisso also denied that the proposed reorganization was done in retaliation for grievances filed by several members of the Indian Education staff. Obtained by Osage News, the 13-page document 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 was formally denied by Superintendent Deborah Gist on Jan. 15 – the same day that Indian Education employees were notified of the proposed reorganization.

In an emailed statement, TPS spokeswoman Lauren Partain declined to comment on the grievance filed and said the district has been in consultation with area tribes and the U.S. Department of Education and that every allegation regarding program compliance has been “thoroughly investigated and answered.”

“We are proud of our Indian Education program and understand its importance to our community. We consult regularly with our local tribes, the US Department of Education Office of Indian Education, and our supportive and engaged parent committee as we work to improve the services and opportunities for our Native students.”


Disclosure: Reporter Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton is a parent living in the jurisdiction of Tulsa Public Schools.