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Point of View: More transparency needed with OKCPS

John Thompson
John Thompson

On Jan. 27, I attended the Oklahoma City Public Schools news conference on student population declines and the school board working session. The small amount of data that was revealed, and the district’s interpretation of the numbers, indicate that more transparency is needed.

The news conference was prompted by The Oklahoman’s story that the number of OKCPS students had dropped by more than 5,000 in five years as suburban schools and charters had grown. The newspaper estimates that 16 charter schools sponsored by the district have gained more than 2,000 students in the past five years.

To find these numbers, we must look at the OKCPS Statistical Profile, state Department of Education report cards and new, incomplete reports. The differences in those statistics are small. It would be nice, however, if patrons didn’t have to search multiple databases and add numbers with pen and paper.

From 2014-15 to 2018-19, student population dropped from 41,110 to 37,530. That was a loss of 3,580 students, for an average decline of about 700 students per year. That’s the main reason why the district predicted an $11 million reduction in state aid during fiscal year 2019 to FY 2021.

The Oklahoman reports that student population fell this year to 35,897, down 1,633 from last year, meaning the rate of the decline more than doubled. Director of Equity and Accountability Rebecca Kaye said a loss of 1,000 is anticipated next year.

If the district is correct, after Pathway to Greatness, the rate of student loss increased to an average of 1,000 per year over seven years. But the decline could become much worse. Kaye cited research indicating that P2G could follow the pattern in other districts’ reorganizations, possibly resulting in a 10% to 15% drop in student enrollment.

According to the numbers Kaye provided, the price tag for such a decline could be about $20 million to $30 million in state funding. It would be unclear how much of those costs would be attributable to P2G. But they would add to $32 million of transition costs the district acknowledged in February 2019.

If Kaye is correct, the unanswered question is whether the board was fully briefed on the greater costs that were possible, and why weren't patrons warned of them?

The district hasn’t responded to numerous requests for current data, or the question of whether it believed a 10% to 15% drop in enrollment was possible or likely, and whether the reorganization’s full risks were discussed with the board.

I worry about the belief that has become normative over the last two decades. The board and administration have repeatedly promoted “transformational change.” I wonder if patrons would agree if informed of the full costs of such dramatic closures and reorganizations.

Thompson taught 18 years in the Oklahoma City school district.