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“This is not a respectful request,” Oklahoma City teachers, parents want sales tax money for education

OKLAHOMA CITY -- They sat quietly through a city council meeting until it was their turn to speak, but the message from education advocates was much less polite.

"This is not a respectful request," said Rev. Lori Walke, addressing the council during a public hearing. "It is a desperate, anxiety-ridden, panic-filled plea for help."

Schools struggling in Oklahoma City can see some relief in the form of temporary sales tax revenues. The current proposal would send three-quarters of a cent to patch potholes and repair sidewalks. Educators want one-quarter of a cent to go to schools.

"We can decrease class sizes, increase teacher pay," said Paula Lewis, who chairs the Oklahoma City School Board. "Without that [revenue], we continue to go down the hole of less and less and less and that's never going to be good for educators or for kids."

The City of Oklahoma City envelops 24 different school districts. Lewis estimated a quarter-cent sales tax would bring in $25 million in two years, of which roughly $17 million would go to OKCPS -- enough to reduce classes by two or three students, provide for textbooks and supplies and offer bonuses for teachers.

After the failure of a state question in 2016 and the state legislature's inaction to give teachers a raise, Lewis is feeling as desperate as ever.

"There's definitely frustration," she said. "Two years down the road, kids that enter kindergarten 'kindergarten-ready,' they're not going to be reading-proficient in third grade because we haven't addressed class sizes or teacher pay."

Parents like Nick Singer, whose son is only two-and-a-half years old, want their children to get a good public education and say time is of the essence.

"I think roads are important but I think schools are more important," he said. "I can dodge a pothole, I can repair a car tire, I can't re-educate my child if it doesn't get done right the first time. We need to invest in our future and that's our children. Oklahoma is doing a terrible job at it and we need to do better."

The sales tax for roads is redundant, Singer said, because infrastructure is already a focus of the 2017 general obligation bond package that will be presented to voters.

Road conditions are generally listed as a top priority in the city's satisfaction surveys. The Greater OKC Chamber of Commerce even asked the Council Tuesday for a full penny to be put toward the roads.

Still, teachers like Putnam City's Brooke Fonzi feel education is getting the short end of the stick.

"Roads need it all?" she asked. "Kids can't get a quarter of that? We're asking for a quarter of one percent."

"We don't know what else to do," she added. "The governor's dropped the ball. The state legislature's dropped the ball. Now the city is dropping the ball."

Members of the City Council agree education is in dire need, but say this plan is not it.

"I'm just telling you it's not something that is going to happen overnight and it's not something that's going to happen without a lawsuit," said Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher.

Ward 4 Councilman Todd Stone wondered how things would work logistically with all the districts in Oklahoma City boundaries.

"For us to try to corral those other 24 different districts makes it even more complex and harder to get something done," he said. "That being said, I would love to see a plan for the future."