Charities help Okla. teachers survive pay collapse
Oklahoma City — Tiona Bowman was overcome with emotion when the walls were erected last spring on her first-ever new home, a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Tulsa built through Habitat for Humanity.
Bowman was flanked by her daughter and members of her family, work colleagues and a handful of local reporters who had come to document the event.
Unlike most of those who qualify for a subsidized Habitat home, though, Bowman, 28, wasn’t a fast-food worker or other low-income service employee, but rather a teacher in Tulsa Public Schools with a master’s degree and three years of experience.
“Obviously I was grateful and excited,” said Bowman, who teaches middle-school English and whose $34,000 salary made her eligible for a no-interest loan on one of the program’s houses. “But on the other hand, I was like: I went to school for all these years, I have these degrees, and I qualify for a program like this?”
Charity for teachers isn’t that unusual in Oklahoma these days as more of them approach the ranks of the working poor, becoming the most visible victims of the state’s seemingly endless budget problems.
With state revenues depleted by deep tax cuts and lower energy prices, Oklahoma’s teacher salaries are now the second lowest in the U.S., even though the state’s gross domestic product ranks 29th.
Teachers haven’t had a pay hike in a decade, and 10-year veteran teachers who are single now make little enough that their own children qualify for reduced-price school lunches.
As schools reopen for the fall term, hundreds have left their jobs while communities and local charities are coming forward with gifts and incentives to try to keep others from departing.
“Habitat for Humanity was not intended to be constructing homes for working teachers,” said Cameron Walker, the charity’s Tulsa director, but their income is approaching “typically hourly jobs, people who couldn’t walk into a bank and get a mortgage.”
While never high, teacher pay was squeezed when the GOP-led Legislature slashed taxes on both individual income and oil and natural gas production in 2014, just as oil prices began dropping sharply from a boom-era level of more than $100 a barrel. Oil prices now are hovering below $50.
Since then, while publicly making higher teacher salaries their top priority, lawmakers have not overcome strong conservative aversion to resetting the tax rates, especially on the powerful oil and gas industry. Over the past three years, state funding for public schools has declined by more than $48 million, even as student enrollment increased by nearly 8,000.
While school budgets overall have suffered, teacher pay has taken the greatest hit because it alone is entirely funded by state appropriations rather than a mix of state, local and county revenue. Oklahoma’s average teacher salary of $45,276 trails only Mississippi, while the starting minimum salary is $31,600.
Even affluent districts with new buildings and huge football stadiums are now hemorrhaging qualified teachers to other states or professions. Overall, there are about 1,500 fewer teachers in Oklahoma than in 2010, according to data from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
In some cities, a sense of emergency is growing. In Tulsa, a downtown church has begun providing free meals periodically to teachers at a nearby school.
Habitat for Humanity has built houses for two Tulsa teachers and has received applications from about a dozen more. A Tulsa-based charity, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is offering low-interest home loans, or, for Teach for America recruits, subsidized rent on newly refurbished downtown apartments.
In smaller communities such as Enid in rural northwest Oklahoma, the chamber of commerce is soliciting fitness centers and restaurants to offer discounts and freebies. And scores of organizations are soliciting donations to buy classroom supplies.
Still, it’s a tough sell. Robert Romines, superintendent in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, had just two or three vacancies to fill at this time last year. This year, he’s struggling to fill 25 vacancies, mostly hard-to-fill posts like science, mathematics and special education.
“It’s due to the fact that there aren’t any applicants,” Romines said.
Districts have issued 1,400 “emergency certifications” to non-teachers in an attempt to fill some of the gap.
Other states are taking advantage. The Guilford County Schools District in Greensboro, North Carolina, recently set up a job fair in Oklahoma City to poach talent. But the top beneficiary appears to be the Dallas-Fort Worth area, just south of the state line.
Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, a math teacher in the college town of Norman with six years of experience, left for the Dallas suburb of Lewisville with his wife, who is also a teacher, and their infant daughter. They’ll earn an extra $40,000 for making the 2 ½-hour move.
And the job conditions don’t compare, Sheehan said.
In Norman, “I had 33 students for much of the year, and we only had 32 desks, so we just had one student sit at my desk,” Sheehan said. “Here we’re looking at 20 to 25, tops, in our classes,” with time set aside for grading papers and meeting parents.
Sheehan, an Oklahoma native, said he tried everything he could think of, even running for the state Senate, before giving up his job.
“With no gains in sight for education in general in the state of Oklahoma, that’s definitely what pushed us south,” he said.