With the state looking to fix a massive budget hole and looking to pay teachers more, some are taking a closer look at what can be done with small school districts to help the bottom line.
“These [kindergarten] through [eighth grade] schools are the gems in our education system in Oklahoma,” Ashley Sanderson said sitting at her kitchen table in Yukon.
She and her family moved two years ago to the suburb west of Oklahoma City to a house that she said fit their needs.
The Sandersons enrolled their 5-year-old son Kyler in the Banner School District’s pre-K program last fall. When they moved to Yukon, they had no idea Banner was there, but now they don’t know what they’d do without it.
“It's small. Kyler only has about 15 students in his class, gets a lot of individualized attention. They're report cards from the state are always A or B,” she said with a smile.
But a recent set of bills could be the end for small districts like Sanderson's. More than a half dozen are on the table in the legislature this session, all focusing on cutting costs for administrators by absorbing smaller schools.
“I don't want him to go somewhere where he might be more over crowded, where there might be larger class sizes. I want him to stay in that smaller, more intimate classroom setting,” Sanderson said.
Most of the bills focus on removing or consolidating positions like small district counselors or administrators. Some call for schools under certain enrollment thresholds to be absorbed into nearby, larger districts.
Oklahoma has 530 districts. Currently, the state ranks 49th per student spending in the nation, but ranks in the top five for the amount spent on administrators.
“These are reforms that should have happened years ago, decades ago,” state Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, said Wednesday.
Loveless has two bills on consolidation this session and supported it last year, too. He said they're more about addition than they are about subtraction. One bill sets the threshold at 250 students, but stressed it wouldn’t force schools to close.
He added the money saved from consolidation would be a first step toward giving teachers a pay raise and fixing the state’s near $1 billion budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.
“All the administrators all the support staff all the counselors, they're all doing the same job. It's a matter of just being more streamlined, more focused and that way more money gets to the classroom,” he said.
Administrators have voiced their opposition to consolidation in the past. Yukon Public Schools superintendent Jason Simeroth said there are no superintendents in the state in favor of consolidation adding the push to consolidate could have a detrimental effect on students and teacher morale. His district would most likely absorb the 222 students of Banner Public Schools if it were consolidated.
“Perhaps the downfall of schools across the state is that we have taken so many shots and managed to come through and still provide a quality education that the legislators assume we can handle anything,” Simeroth said in an email on Wednesday. “We are very close to the point in public education of placing so much on our staff that the education of students will suffer immensely and at some point it just has to stop.”
Sanderson said she and other parents understand the state is in a tough spot. She hopes they'll find another way and spare schools like the one her son attends.
“They're just the bright spots. I'd be sad,” Sanderson said with a pause. “It'd be a loss for Oklahoma.”