Western Heights holds town hall ahead of possible teacher walkout as pay raise plan moves forward at capitol

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OKLAHOMA CITY - As teacher pay raise legislation moves forward at the state capitol, one day after the house passed its first tax increase in nearly 30 years, Western Heights schools held a town hall for parents, students, teachers and staff ahead of a still-likely walkout next week.

About 100 people filled the seats of Western Heights High School's auditorium Tuesday evening, allowing them to ask questions of district administrators, school board members and two Oklahoma legislators, Rep. Jon Echols and Sen. Michael Brooks.

"My concern is the next year, and the year after that," said James McCurtain, a Western Heights teacher, directing his questions to the two legislators. "'Education got yours last year!' It’s taken us to crisis level. Is it going to take us another ten years to see another raise?"

"What changed (legislators) is citizen involvement," said Echols, the House Floor Leader and Oklahoma City Republican who voted in favor of the teacher, support staff, and state employee pay raise.

The house passed a $447 million tax increase, the first since 1990, 79-19 late Monday night. It, along with a number of other measures, if passed by the senate and signed into law, would provide teachers a $6,000 (average) pay raise, along with raises for school support staff and state employees.

"I'm calling this one the down payment," Echols said, referring to what is hopefully the first step in a continued effort to repair the funding mechanisms, state agencies and state employees impacted by tax cuts and reduced funding over the previous decade.

"For ten years we ignored education. This is the beginning, not the end, of where we're going."

"When it passed, I felt a sense of relief that we were finally able to break the 75 percent gridlock that we've had previously," said freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Brooks, when asked by McCurtain about the pay increase's prospects in the upper chamber.

"This is something that's truly historic and so, without a doubt, just like Rep. Echols said, I think education, public employees and lots of other groups have been neglected over the last ten years and we have to acknowledge it."

"It's not something we can fix with one bill," said Brooks.

Tuesday, senate leadership acknowledged the fact that a walkout seems unavoidable, even as the senate is expected to take up the measures Wednesday.

"I think no matter what we do this week, there will still be a showing of a teacher strike or rally next Monday regardless of what happens in the building," said Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

"There`s no real rush on our side to do this wrong," said Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman. "We want to be thoughtful."

"28 percent cuts over the last 10 years - those are historical cuts," said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest Tuesday, adding the planned walkout of April 2 is still on. "It’s going to take historical action and forward thinking in order to solve this problem. We asked for $10,000 over three years. This gets us part of the way there, and so we need to have the Legislature guarantee that we are still working to get to that."

Priest also said the plan doesn't address operational funding for schools, adding passage in the House was only one hurdle that needed to be overcome. The plan must also pass the senate and be signed by Gov. Mary Fallin.

Oil and gas groups have come out against the plan, as it includes increasing the gross production tax on oil and gas wells to 5 percent for the first 36 months. While other education groups say that it's a good deal that should be taken, while available.

"We can’t live in the ‘what-ifs’ and fear," said Oklahoma State School Board Association Executive Director Shawn Hime. "We got in this situation because of cutting some of these same taxes that they’re looking to increase."

"Our hope is that we learn from the past and ensure that we have a balanced revenue package, moving forward, so that we don’t have to worry about cuts."

Back at Western Heights, district leaders said mandatory testing and college placement testing would continue as planned, as well as after-school and pre-scheduled activities, during the walkout.

Still, 'what-if' questions remained.

"Why are teachers going to strike and are we going to be able to still learn?" asked Regina Wilks, the grandparent of 7-year-old Western Heights student Serenity Martin, too shy to ask the question into the microphone. "That's all she wants to know."

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