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After West Virginia, Strike Date Set for Oklahoma Teachers

For years, Oklahoma teachers have rallied at the Capitol, run for state office and campaigned for a statewide sales tax increase, all in the hopes of reversing the state's status as the lowest paying for public school teachers.

By Ben Felder

For years, Oklahoma teachers have rallied at the Capitol, run for state office and campaigned for a statewide sales tax increase, all in the hopes of reversing the state's status as the lowest paying for public school teachers.

As those actions have come up short and teachers remain without an across-the-board pay raise in nearly a decade, educators and union leaders are planning to walk off the job and close schools within a few weeks.

April 2 has been selected by the state's largest teacher union as the day for a statewide teacher strike.

"Our goals remain the same, to force the Legislature to pass a plan that provides teachers and support personnel a significant pay raise," said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest, who vowed schools would remain closed until a pay and school funding plan was approved.

Teachers across the state have intensified their call for a strike in recent weeks, building a grassroots movement through social media and meetings.

On Tuesday, the union set an April 23 deadline for the Legislature to act, but that announcement was met with anger from many teachers who felt the date was too far in the future.

Less than 24 hours later the union said April 2 was the new target for a walkout.

"The communication coming out of OEA has not been clear and for that I am sorry," Priest said in a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday. "Our members are ready to act now. We will be at the Capitol until a solution is passed and is signed by the governor."

The union has a news conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon to announce the details of a proposal that is expected to include a $10,000 pay raise for teachers.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister included a $5,000 teacher pay raise in next year's state Department of Education proposed budget. But the Legislature has not been able to agree on a way to fund any increases.

"Teachers and school leaders have been waiting for a plan to pass, and there have been several plans that have been put forward but their hopes have been dashed. I think the options now are limited," Hofmeister said.

"But we have had teachers walking out of the classroom and into other states and other industries for the last several years."

School district leaders across the state have been preparing for a possible walkout and many school boards, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City, have openly supported such an effort by teachers.

However, schools would still be responsible for meeting the 1,080-hour requirement from the state, or risk losing funding. Federal law also requires that 95 percent of students complete required testing or risk losing federal funds.

Oklahoma law prevents teachers from holding a strike over a dispute with the board of education, but that does not apply to a strike directed at the state Legislature.

The last time teachers walked off the job was in 1990, when a four-day strike successfully won a pay raise, increased school funding and set new education standards.

Twenty-eight years later, Oklahoma's public school system, which serves nearly 700,000 students, faces many of the same issues, including average teacher pay ranked last in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The average annual teacher salary in Oklahoma is $45,276, and starting pay is $31,600, according to the National Education Association.

Average salaries in Oklahoma are often significantly behind neighboring states, and school leaders have reported that thousands of teachers have left in recent years for districts in states like Texas and Arkansas, where the yearly pay can be $20,000 higher, or more.

In 2016, voters rejected a statewide sales tax that would have funded a $5,000 pay raise.

Earlier this year, lawmakers were unable to approve a series of tax increases that would also have funded a pay raise.

Oklahoma has a uniquely high hurdle for increasing taxes, requiring a three-fourths vote of the Legislature.

Calls and emails to House Speaker Charles McCall's office went unreturned on Wednesday, and the Legislature has been relatively quiet on a possible strike.

In Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest district, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers union has said he supports a teacher walkout.

As has been the case throughout the state, teachers in Oklahoma City gathered earlier this week to discuss a possible strike.

"Fed up," "pushed around" and "bullied" are a few of the words and phrases teachers used Monday as they met at Southern Oaks Library in south Oklahoma City to discuss their frustrations and their options moving forward.

Dwayne Wiseman, a fourth-grade teacher at Greystone Elementary, said teachers want to feel supported. Wiseman said he was inspired by teachers in West Virginia, who held a nine-day strike to gain a 5 percent pay increase.

Teachers are dealing with higher insurance costs, bigger class sizes and more responsibilities, Wiseman said.

"This has been something on every teacher's mind for a while," he said. "We need to feel valued in the classroom."

Teachers aren't looking to hurt their students in any way, Wiseman said.

"My kids know that I love them dearly and I support them 100 percent and I'm giving my all, but I have legislators who don't care," Wiseman said.

Bonnie Green, a teacher at Heronville Elementary School, said teachers feel like their hands are tied and no one is listening.

"It's time for our voices to be heard," she said.

Green, a 30-year teaching veteran with a master's degree, said at this point in her life she thought she would be retired, getting to travel and enjoy her grandchildren. Instead, she said she's looking for a second job to make ends meet so she can retire.

Other teachers shared stories of buying socks and underwear or food for their students and working a second job or struggling to make ends meet.

Teachers are frustrated and they've reached a point that they're willing to do something drastic, Green said.

"We didn't ever want it to come down to this," she said.

Contributing: Staff Writer Darla Slipke

(c)2018 The Oklahoman

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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