OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma City Public School board has approved the controversial plan to close and repurpose 15 schools, part of the district's year-plus effort to strategically plan and realign the district.
The school board voted for the recommended Pathway to Greatness plan by an 8-0 vote Monday evening.
A total of 15 schools would close and be repurposed, some as community centers; 17 other schools will be reconfigured into intermediate or middle schools, mid-high schools turned into a traditional 9-12 grade format, or relocated into schools closed for repurposing. School boundaries are also reconfigured.
The plan does not call for the closed schools to be shuttered, sold or razed.
According to the district, the plan is expected to save more than $4 million annually, which will be reinvested into class size reductions, increasing staff sizes and investing in professional development, supplies and transportation. It's estimated the total cost for implementing the plan will total more than $11 million, with nearly all funds coming from bonds.
About 150 people showed up to the board meeting at Northeast Academy (which will merge with and house Classen SAS High School) which lasted a little more than a half hour. A round of applause followed the board's unanimous vote. There was no public comment.
"One question I've heard often in the past several months is 'Why can't we wait? Why won't you slow down?'" said board member Carrie Jacobs, speaking in favor of the Pathway to Greatness project that began more than a year ago. "Because students get one shot. They have one chance at 3rd grade. One chance at 8th grade. One senior year. We cannot wait. We have been waiting for decades."
"We don't want to continue to live in the past. This is what this is for, in order to move us to the future," said board member Ruth Veales. "To make sure that every student has the same opportunity for whatever it is they choose for their lives."
Three options for the Pathway to Greatness were presented to the school board in January, ahead of a number of community meetings to educate the public on the options before the board. Last month, Superintendent Sean McDaniel put forward his recommended plan, which was approved without changes by the board Monday evening.
"We know that this has been painful and there's more of that, until we actually get kids in school on August 12, and they're running and playing, and teachers are teaching and PTAs are formed. And until that happens, there's still going to be an amount of uncertainty and we feel that. But we believe that we’re on a great path, a great road," said McDaniel after the meeting.
Board member Charles Henry questioned McDaniel about whether the district was intending to sell the 15 closed schools, concerned a sale could be detrimental to the community as the city is working to revitalize neighborhoods. McDaniel downplayed those concerns, adding that the district would retain ownership as it seeks to enter into contracts with community partners to lease the schools, or parts of them. Draft plans call for early childhood centers in four closed elementary schools, a health and community center in another, along with other child-related non-profit groups utilizing others.
"So while there's no guarantee, our target has been from day one not to follow the model that has existed over the years, that we board up buildings. We know that that devalues. And as move kids out of schools and into other schools, we want to add value to the community, not devalue," McDaniel said after the meeting, when asked about whether the schools will stay vacant, like other shuttered schools in the district. "It's tough to guarantee today, but our guarantee is that we're going to work – tirelessly – to get people inside those buildings so it can add value to the neighborhoods."
The plan will realign the school boundary zones and change transportation requirements for students at the start of next school year. McDaniel said the district will roll out online tools later this month for parents to look up their address to determine what new school feeder pattern they are now in, as well as changes to transportation. The district plans to announce principals for every building by the end of the day Tuesday.
Board President Paula Lewis called Monday "a historic day" for the district, adding that the plan will hopefully bring equity and access to education for the district's 45,000 students, regardless of zip code.
However, a common theme from concerned parents, teachers and community members since the three "pathways" were presented in January, was the impact of closing neighborhood elementary schools. All three plans called for varying numbers of schools to be closed and repurposed.
"Linwood (Elementary) is one of the few schools in Oklahoma City public schools that is full that is working, and has been working," said Linwood Elementary art teacher Ann Labay Land after the meeting.
McDaniel said the plan will hopefully address declining district enrollment, overcrowding in some schools while others have empty seats, and provide the same educational opportunities and social support systems in all district schools, not just a few.
"We do not have the luxury to look at a single school that has 500 of our kids and make decisions for our district, based on what is happening in a single school," McDaniel said.
McDaniel said now the biggest hurdle moving forward is following through.
"We have talked about plans. Lots of people have great plans. But until you see things on the ground. Implementation. Complete those day one ready lists, check, check, check. So getting from here to August 12, all those things that have to happen between now and then, presents a collective hurdle for us," he said.