Frustrated Oklahoma educators mulling organized walkout

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma educators frustrated with low pay and another round of proposed cuts to public schools are mulling an organized walkout to get lawmakers' attention.

Momentum was spurred this week when hundreds of residents packed a school board meeting in Bartlesville, about 45 miles north of Tulsa. Administrators are gauging support from residents and other districts for a statewide walkout.

The Oklahoma House passed a bill Monday to further cut public schools after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on tax increases that would have given teachers a $5,000 pay raise. Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest-paid in the U.S.

Bartlesville Superintendent Chuck McCauley said initial reaction has been "overwhelmingly positive" from the community and other district leaders. He said any walkout would likely be a coordinated as part of a statewide effort and tied to a specific piece of legislation.

Organizers hope to replicate the success of a four-day teacher strike in 1990 that led to tax increases to fund a broad range of education initiatives in Oklahoma.

Alicia Priest, the head of the Oklahoma Education Association, said talks about a work stoppage are ongoing among representatives from various groups representing rural districts, school boards, administrators and teachers.

"They know we're in crisis and something has to be done," Priest said. "We've tried all the other avenues, and so they think this is the only thing that is going to make a difference in the state is to have teachers have a work stoppage."

Oklahoma education supporters seeking the first pay raise for teachers in a decade and a boost in education funding have had their hopes dashed multiple times in the last two years.

After state voters in 2016 rejected a proposed sales tax increase to fund a $5,000 teacher pay hike, the GOP-led Legislature came up with several proposed pay boosts but not enough votes to pass them. The most recent attempt, dubbed the Step Up plan supported by civic and business leaders, would have increased taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel and energy production to fund the pay increase, but failed amid bipartisan opposition in the House.

"We're definitely talking about our next steps after the Step Up plain failed," said Jessica Williams, a sixth-grade teacher in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. "When it comes to a teacher pay raise that everyone says they support, nothing is happening."

Teachers have become increasingly frustrated by the Legislature's inability to approve a pay raise for teachers, despite bipartisan support from legislators and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.

"After the first special session, there were grumblings. Then after the second special session failure, it got even louder," Priest said of a potential walkout. "The end goal is not a work stoppage. The end goal is to fund education. That's what we want - funding for education and core services in our state."

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