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Budget cuts force board to consider closure of special needs school

OKLAHOMA CITY - In light of another revenue failure at the Oklahoma State Capitol, the state's largest school district is trying, once again, to balance its budget.

Superintendent Aurora Lora has proposed the closure of six school buildings - an effort that could potentially save the district $1.2 million.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education cut Oklahoma City Public Schools funding by $30 million last year.

This year, the district is bracing for $4 million to $16 million in additional cuts.

One of the elementary schools in danger of closure, Johnson Elementary, is a special needs magnet school.

"Somehow, we're having to figure out how to make this horrible, horrible budget work for one more year," Lora said to parents Thursday night during an informational meeting at the school.

Lora's plan is not a done deal yet.

It is a cost-saving suggestion to the school board.

The biggest factors, according to the district, are low enrollment, building quality and neighboring schools with space.

"I know this is painful," Lora said. "These are really hard decisions. We do not have a lot of choices. I'm doing everything I can to make sure kids really get a good education in this city in this environment."

Enrollment at Johnson Elementary is right around 200.

It's a special needs magnet school with almost 30 percent of the students labeled as having special needs.

The hallways at Johnson are lined with wheelchairs and other special equipment for a student population that can't just easily move into another school.

Many of the students are profoundly challenged.

"My son, who was once non-verbal, he can now talk in conversations. He's comfortable," said Cori Caldwell, whose son attends Johnson Elementary.

Johnson has a million-dollar gymnasium that's just a few years old and a brand new $100,000 playground designed for wheelchair bound students.

It's one of the only schools in the district with a full-time nurse.

Parents and teachers are concerned the superintendent gave little to no consideration to the fragile population at the small school.

"Our autism spectrum disorder kids do way better in a small setting than in a school with 500 kids," said Rachel Lackmeyer, a former teacher at Johnson.

In fact, Johnson has such great resources for special needs students that more than half of the students are transfers, including some out-of-district transfers.

Jeff Berry's 9-year-old daughter is a fourth grader at Johnson.

He is concerned because the superintendent's plan recommends moving the Johnson students to nearby Ridgeview Elementary, which is not similarly equipped to handle special needs.

"They say they're going to save $250,000 by closing this school, but they're going to spend well over that to renovate that school to make it handicap accessible," Berry said. "There's a bunch of stuff that Ridgeview doesn't offer than Johnson does."

The Oklahoma Legislature has put the crunch on local school districts around the state with debilitating budget cuts.

Every district in the state is again trying to make up for the state's poor management of revenue.

In Oklahoma City, the fight is on to keep the doors open at each of the six endangered buildings.

"I don't like it," said Oklahoma City Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid. "You need to spread the pain throughout the district. You don't pick on certain neighborhoods. You don't pick on neighborhoods or special disability schools."

The superintendent is listening as parents all around Oklahoma City show up to keep the lights on in their neighborhood schools.

The school board will vote on the issue April 6.