Western Heights schools to resume classes Tuesday after heated school board meeting with teachers, staff

OKLAHOMA CITY - Western Heights schools will resume classes Tuesday despite heated pleas from teachers, staff, students and parents at an hours-long special school board meeting Monday night.

Hours after tens of thousands of teachers and school supporters converged on the capitol Monday, about 200 people -- many teachers and staff -- filled the Western Heights High School auditorium, feeling forced to fight for continued education funding, and possibly their jobs if they decided to continue to walkout in spite of a board vote to return to school.

"We were so encouraged when you said you would support us," said Rhonda Simonson, a Pre-K teacher, "because we are still fighting. I'm grateful for a raise, but I want my classroom funded. We stop now, they don't hear our voice."

During the three-plus hour meeting, teachers, students, parents and staff -- feeling energized with the momentum in the state surrounding education -- urged the board to let them continue to walkout, wanting to continue talks with lawmakers, concerned that the legislative education funding solutions offered so far aren't enough.

"You told us to stay in there, this might take a long time, we might have to make some sacrifices," said reading and social studies teacher Gary Siebert, as emotions cracked his voice. "Let us make those sacrifices."

Even as district leaders sought to force teachers and staff back to classrooms, under threat that if they didn't show up they would be in breach of contracted, marked AWOL, and face disciplinary action.

"I'm angry that I'm being told I'll be fired if I walkout tomorrow," said one teacher. "And I tell you I'm walking out tomorrow."

At issue was a vote before the board was to tell teachers and staff that classes would resume Tuesday. In light of the legislature passing HB1010XX, the $447 million tax increase to help fund teacher pay and education funding in the state, the board agreed to return to class in a 4-1 vote.

"I want to know what we think we can accomplish if we do another day?" said board member Mannix Barnes.

"This is something that should have been brought out when we passed a resolution that said, 'Hey, if the legislature acts and it’s not enough, then we’re going to be out'. None of that was communicated to us.”

"There`s a lot of people that would like to cut it off," said board president Robert Everman, referring to the tax increases and already announced attempts by some to claw them back. The house has already passed legislation to repeal a $50 million hotel/motel tax; a legislative fix to replace the funds has not yet been passed.

"Perhaps we have a little difference of opinion at how we go about the next few days. But that doesn't mean I don't support you."

Many teachers and staff expressed they will continue to walkout, despite the board's decision. What's not known is if, or how, the district may choose to discipline those who don't return to the classroom Tuesday.

District leaders didn't want to say what discipline teachers and staff would face if they didn't show up for work Tuesday, or the days beyond.

"You have to understand why teachers are extremely concerned?" I asked Superintendent Joe Kitchens.

"At this point, we have a really good funding set aside and I think we have to take advantage of that," said Kitchens after the board meeting. "And you have to ask yourself, 'Do you think there will be another appropriation?' I sure hope so. And if it goes -- as you might fear -- then I say you go back to the legislature and talk to them."

"If we don't walk, who will?" asked Western Heights teacher Tina Hawkins, as she and others pleaded with the school board to extend the walkout. "Who has offered to help our kids? If we don't do it, nobody will."