Counties along state borders to east, south show most support for failed education sales tax (Tulsa World)

By Andrea Eger 

Reaction to Tuesday’s State Question 779 vote ranged from relief from those opposed to raising Oklahoma’s sales tax to more vows by demoralized teachers to “abandon ship.”

“It wasn’t an adversarial role. We recognize the importance teachers have in our communities, but I think there’s other ways of funding the teacher increase, and I think that should be a priority — to recruit and retain teachers,” said Jim Thomas, Claremore city manager and supporter of the 779 opposition campaign, called Oklahoma Deserves Better. “Putting another tax burden on, in this economy, is not the right answer.”

After more than two years of public education groups documenting the relationship of pay to a deepening teacher shortage across the state, only eight counties approved the ballot initiative led by University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

By and large, they are counties along the state’s southern and eastern borders, where public schools see a steady exodus of teachers to higher-paying districts over the Texas and Arkansas lines.

Ranked by percentage of yes votes, those counties were Jefferson, 53.8 percent; Johnston, 52.6 percent; Bryan, 52.5 percent; LeFlore, 51.2 percent; Ottawa, 51.1 percent; Harmon, 50.9 percent; Sequoyah, 50.2 percent; and Comanche, 50.1 percent.

A host of teachers from around the state responded with calls of a statewide strike or sick-out or personal vows to leave the state or teaching profession altogether.

Lea Nance, who teaches kindergarten at Tulsa’s Lewis and Clark Elementary School, posted the following on the Facebook page of Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, a 25,000-member group that recently formed a political action committee:

“Dear Oklahoma, I moved away from you once. Looking for bright lights and big city action. I lasted barely a year before scurrying back as quickly as I could. I missed your sunsets and thunderstorms. I missed your wide open plains of beauty. I missed your welcoming faces in every city. I missed the feeling of knowing my roots and being grounded to a place that would always be ‘home.’ I missed QuikTrip and Taco Bueno. I missed my family. I missed my state.

“Today, I’m about to break up with you.”

After school on Wednesday, the single mother of three told the Tulsa World that she has her sights set on moving to a border town within easy driving distance to a higher-paying teaching job in Kansas or Arkansas.

“No teacher becomes a teacher for the money,” said Nance, who is in her fourth year as a teacher. “When I went back to school to become a teacher I was married and had a second income in my household. Now that I’m a single mom with three kids, I just barely make ends meet. I already have a photography business, and I do essential oils, and I sign up for every single extra duty (assignment at school) with a (paid) stipend, and there’s no money for gas, there’s no money for food, there’s no money for fun.”

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist sought to address the common sentiment and bolster teachers’ spirits in a video message to her district’s faculty.

“I truly believe, with all my heart, that the failure of State Question 779 was not about a lack of respect or appreciation for teachers in Oklahoma — at least not in Tulsa,” Gist said. “Time and time again when I was talking with people about it, I would hear people express concern and even outrage about our teacher salaries, but they believed this wasn’t the right solution. … We will make sure that our state reaches out to all of those folks who said yes, I know teachers need a raise, we just need a better way. We’re going to find that way and make sure we make a change.”

Counties with the strongest opposition to SQ 779 were: Kingfisher, 74.3 percent against; Dewey, 74 percent; Major, 71.5 percent; Grant, 70.3 percent; and Noble, 69.6 percent.

Thomas, the Claremore city manager, said he and other opponents also questioned why the ballot initiative would have directed funding to anything beyond teacher pay increases.

“There was a lot suspect if you say we’ve got 40,000 teachers and they need a $5,000 raise. That’s only $200 million. Where’s the other $400 million going?” he said.

Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow, served as vice chairman of the House education committee last session and will soon be sworn into his second, two-year term. He posted on social media first thing Wednesday morning his pledge to help lead legislative action on the issue after the failure of SQ 779.

“In my two years being there, there’s always been a sense that we need to do this, but also how do we do it,” Rogers told the Tulsa World. “With the shortfalls, I think they’ve looked at things and said now is not the time. I think you’ll see the House in particular be the drivers of this train and say ‘Look, we’ve got to figure this out.’ ”

In Tulsa County, 28 of 263 precincts approved SQ 779. The strongest support came from South Tulsa’s precinct 162 — largely the Oral Roberts University campus — where 61.1 percent of the 162 ballots cast were to approve the measure.

David Blatt, executive director of the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the vote clearly demonstrated that voters did not want to add to the sales tax — not that they don’t believe teacher pay is a problem.

He said sales tax is Oklahoma’s “most regressive major tax, which takes the biggest share of income from low-income seniors and working families — after years of income tax cuts heavily slanted to benefit the wealthiest Oklahomans.”

“Going forward, lawmakers must find a more balanced approach to restore school funding,” Blatt said. “The failure of SQ 779 does not take lawmakers off the hook, because our state’s children and economic future still depend on better funding of schools and teachers.”

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