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As Oklahoma lawmakers deliberate over deficit, Newcastle tries to thrive

Photo courtesy of Angie Williams
Newcastle High School is the home of the Racers.
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NEWCASTLE, Okla. – Oklahoma schools have undergone a major series of austerity cuts in the last few years due to a $1.2 billion deficit in the state budget.

Schools have received less money from the state for social programs, basic infrastructure maintenance and teacher compensation, and as a result have had to take extreme measures to stay afloat. One such measure: moving from a five-day week to a four-day week.

Proponents of the reduced school year say it helps offset some of the cuts - even saving districts money - while also keeping teachers employed and students in the classroom. But the Oklahoma State Department of Education has concerns about the move.

A preliminary study conducted by OSDE at Gov. Mary Fallin’s request found that the cost savings from four-day weeks were “minimal” in the districts that enacted the policy.

“The study […] analyzed expenditures of 16 school districts that have been on a four-day school week for six years. Results indicate that nine districts actually spent more money, on average, after the switch, while cost savings for the remainder were negligible,” according to a statement from OSDE released in April.

According to the study, the 16 districts surveyed spent “on average $4,523 more on utilities, $2,714 less on food, $1,971 less on transportation and $8,542 more on support staff after switching to a four-day week.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister acknowledged that districts were under a monetary crunch, but expressed concern that the attempt to save money was hurting students in the long run.

“School boards care deeply about students, but it is important that they have accurate information,” Hofmeister said in the OSDE statement. “We believe the cost to students is far too great to consider the four-day week as a long-term strategy.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. (Brett Dickerson / Red Dirt Report)

Newcastle School District is not one of the districts observed in OSDE’s study. They have only utilized the four-day week for a year, after the Newcastle School Board voted 4-1 to approve the new schedule last March.

But Tony O’Brien, Newcastle Superintendent, said the benefits have been palpable already.

“(Newcastle has) saved some money, it’;s not a windfall by any means,” O’Brien said in a phone interview with Red Dirt Report. “But where we are gaining benefits are in our student discipline – it’s down significantly - and in our grades. I just checked the high school’s grades at the semester, and they are three-tenths of a full percent up from last year.”

Newcastle public schools currently enroll over 1500 students.

Student and teacher morale have also increased, O’Brien said, referencing informal studies his staff has conducted.

“We did a survey last year and this year, and of all the staff members that responded, only two responded negatively,” O’Brien said. “For educators, that’s really good. They are very happy with (the four-day week),” he said. With students, the data is more apocryphal, but he said parents have reported that their children are feeling better about being in school.

One such parent was a school board member - the only dissenting vote when the board voted in 2016 to move to four days.

“We’ve already voted on the calendar for next year, and that board member changed his vote,” O’Brien said. “That board member’s got a high school son, and he made some very strong statements to the effect that his son was very happy, loved it, was doing better in school and athletics, and just all-around his well-being seemed to be better.”

Oklahoma school districts like Newcastle are following a decades-long tradition of cutting a day out of the school week to keep from cutting staff or services. The practice has its roots in Depression-era cost-saving measures, but begins to play a more prominent role in schooling during the gas crisis of the 1970’s.

At that time, districts had to consider their energy usage, and in many cases, drastically reduce cost quickly. The recent deficit has recreated many of those conditions for Oklahoma schools, forcing many to lay teachers off. Newcastle seems to be actively attracting new teachers thanks to the schedule change.

“In the fall of 2015, we had to hire three emergency-certified teachers because we couldn’t fill openings, O’Brien said. “This year we had very close to the same number of openings and we had at least five applicants for every spot. That’s including some special-ed spots. It made our applicant pool significantly deeper.”

While O’Brien remains hopeful about the future of his district, he still has concerns about current budget shortfalls. Earlier this year Newcastle sent a letter to parents asking them for their support and input on what to do with another $300,000 in cuts since the start of the year.

“Our district has already implemented many cost-cutting measures and has operated at a bare bones level for several years, this year particularly,” O’Brien said in a statement. “We are at a point now where the choices we need to make will have a direct impact on our students. It is likely that we will need to modify or forego access to services such as transportation, manageable class sizes, new curricula, library media services, academic and behavioral counseling services, and technology support.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are trying to figure out a way to eliminate the deficit without raising taxes. One conservative group’s plan includes eliminating all non-essential, non-instructional employees in higher education, saving the state over $300 million; removing the $5 million film tax credit; rescinding $160 million in transferrable tax credits; ceasing spending $40 million on promotional “swag;” and turning over nearly 82,000 non-English- speaking students to ICE to “see if they truly are citizens,” according to State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow).

“That’s not on the table for me,” Gov. Mary Fallin told News 9 regarding the proposed ICE test for students. “I’ll just take that off the table right now.”

Red Dirt Report will continue to monitor this situation as it develops in coming months.

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Trevor Hultner

Trevor Hultner is an independent journalist from Oklahoma City. His main focus is on energy,...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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