OKLAHOMA CITY — The vast majority of Oklahomans will not see an immediate dramatic increase in energy bills as a result of rising gas prices following the recent historic low temperatures, Kenneth Wagner, secretary of Energy and Environment, said Monday.
His remarks came during a press conference featuring Gov. Kevin Stitt, Attorney General Mike Hunter, Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
“We will see increases in bills as a result of two to three times the usage,” Wagner said.
Groups that may be affected by extraordinary costs include large commercial customers and industrial customers who get gas that is not regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Wagner said.
“The vast majority of Oklahomans will only see increases by the direct result of their usage in the most immediate billing cycle,” Wagner said.
A Stitt spokeswoman said the executive branch is working with rate-regulated utilities, which will work with the Corporation Commission, to get a commitment that they will spread costs out over a period of time — months or years — with the idea being to become manageable for customers.
The rate-regulated utilities must first file a case and a majority of the Corporation Commissioners must approve it before costs can be passed on in some form.
Rate-regulated natural gas utilities include Oklahoma Natural Gas, CenterPoint, Navitas, West Texas Gas, Panhandle Gas and Arkansas Oklahoma Gas.
Rate-regulated electric utilities include OG&E and PSO.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said last week’s storm was historic in how it affected the utility system.
Temperatures in Oklahoma City dropped to 14 degrees below zero, the coldest since 1899. In addition, temperatures were below 20 degrees for a week, the longest in the last 60 years, Stitt said.
It resulted in electrical outages for Oklahoma and 13 other states with little or no warning, Stitt said.
Utility companies were forced to buy energy on the spot market at skyrocketing prices, he said.
Stitt said officials will do everything they can to help get financial assistance for the upcoming bills.
The state hopes to get to the bottom of the issue to make sure it never happens again, Stitt said.
Treat said he has created a select committee led by Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, to look at the issue.
McCall said the House will use its Utilities Committee, chaired by Rep. Garry Mize, R-Guthrie, to assess the situation.
“We will conduct public hearings on the matter to ascertain what needs to be done going forward,” McCall said.
Hunter’s office represents rate payers before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and will work with the agency to figure out ways to mitigate the impact of higher prices.
Hunter said those who are billing consumers should suspend automatic payments and bill customers manually to avoid putting them in a bad financial situation.
With Tulsa’s water system continuing to hemorrhage millions of gallons of water a day because of waterline breaks, a city official on Monday urged Tulsans to continue conserving water.
“We are pumping about 75 million gallons more a day than we would normally average in February,” said Clayton Edwards, director of the Water and Sewer Department. “Staff is surveying our distribution system to see where ... we may be losing that water.”
The city believes breaks in private waterlines could be contributing significantly to the higher-than-usual water flow.
“I know the Fire Department has responded to about a 1,000 breaks of private lines, so we are asking our customers to please help conserve water,” Edwards said.
Edwards was reluctant to say when Tulsans might be able to return to normal water usage, noting that as the weather warms up he expects to see more waterline breaks.
“We are not out of this,” he said. “As long as demand is this high and the pumps (are) this high, there is still a risk.
The city’s voluntary water boil, meanwhile, remains in effect for customers who have recently lost water service due to last week’s storms and freezing temperatures.
“Customers who have had water restored in the last 72 hours with no further interruptions, you don’t need to follow the water boil guidelines,” Edwards said.
Once water service has been restored, customers are encouraged to run it for at least five minutes or until it comes out of the tap clear.
“We have been conducting water tests out at the distribution system through the weekend and we continue today,” Edwards said. “So far we have not discovered any water quality issues.”
As of Monday afternoon, the city had about 50 active waterline breaks, including 14 that were reported Monday. Since the storms began more than a week ago, there have been 329 mainline breaks and 14 service line breaks that have affected 3,624 residential customers and 301 businesses, according to the city.
Edwards said he does not expect that the waterline breaks to result in an increase in water rates.
Terry Ball, director of the Streets and Stormwater Department, said he expects the city to begin repairing the holes in the streets created by the waterline work as soon as this week.
“Normally they have knocked a pretty big hole in the street,” Ball said. “So what we will do is as we get them released from the Water Department, we’ll issue them to the contractor that we have and start going through those.”
Ball said it will likely take some time to make the street repairs and that he won’t be able to provide a more specific timeline until he knows how many repairs his department will be asked to make.
He encouraged Tulsans to call 3-1-1 to report potholes.
“If people see them, if they will report them to us, we’ll put them on a list and get out there and get them done,” Ball said. “They are almost like helping us out as a secondary staff if they can report them to us, especially in neighborhoods.”
Further solidifying citizenship status for the descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves, the tribe’s Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday to remove the words “by blood” from all tribal laws and even from the tribe’s own constitution.
The decision, however, drew a sharp rebuke from members of the tribe’s legislature, who accused the court and the Principal Chief’s Office of exceeding their authority by unilaterally changing the constitution.
“We now have a broken government,” said Tribal Council member Wes Nofire, adding that the tribe’s constitution can be changed only by a constitutional convention or a vote of the people.
“They do not lawfully have the authority to do what they have done,” Nofire said. “When you have a court or a principal chief that don’t recognize the limits of their own power, it becomes tyranny.”
The Cherokee Nation’s attorney general, Sara Hill, had recently requested that the tribe’s Supreme Court issue an order to clarify the issue. And the decision was based on a 2017 case in U.S. federal court, Cherokee Nation v. Nash, which determined that Freedmen citizens had full rights as Cherokee citizens based on the Treaty of 1866 with the U.S. government.
“Provisions in Cherokee Nation’s constitution and laws that deny descendants of Freedmen all the rights and obligations of Cherokee citizenship violate our 155-year-old treaty obligations and are void,” Hill said. “Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descents are simply this: Cherokee citizens.”
The Cherokee Nation has about 8,500 enrolled Cherokee Nation citizens of Freedmen descent.
The tribal court’s decision nullifies a 2007 amendment to the tribe’s constitution “to limit citizenship in the nation to only those persons who were Cherokee, Shawnee or Delaware by blood.”
Monday’s tribal Supreme Court decision declared those words “never valid from inception, and must be removed wherever found throughout our tribal law.”
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. welcomed the court’s ruling, saying it “acknowledged, in the strongest terms, our ancestors’ commitment to equality 155 years ago in the Treaty of 1866.”
“My hope,” Hoskin said, “is that we all share in that same commitment going forward.”
Any change to the tribal constitution, however, should have followed the process outlined by the constitution itself, said Nofire, one of three Tribal Council members who had filed a petition with the court last week to urge against striking any language without a vote of the Cherokee people.
“The foundation of our democracy is at stake when any one branch of government believes they have the supreme authority to amend, alter or strike any part of the constitution without a vote of the people,” Nofire said in a statement joined by Council members Harley Buzzard and Julia Coates.
Nofire suggested Monday that a petition drive could seek to recall the principal chief, or the Tribal Council could seek to remove members of the tribal Supreme Court.
“Ultimately, it has to be up to the people what to do,” Nofire said.
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Correction: This story originally misidentified Hale Junior High School vocal music teacher Michael Broyles. The story has been corrected.
After more than 11 months of learning from home, Mason Smith has missed seeing his friends and classmates face to face.
But that’s not to say the Salk Elementary School fifth grader’s online learning experience has been all bad.
“It’s easier at home because I get help from my parents … and sometimes a calculator,” he said with a grin.
Along with other students across Tulsa Public Schools, Smith and two of his three siblings will have their first day of in-person classes Tuesday. Tier three and four special education students; fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth graders; and seventh graders at the district’s junior high campuses have the option to return to campus starting Tuesday morning or remain in distance learning.
His oldest brother, an eighth grader at Thoreau Demonstration Academy, will go back in person on Thursday, along with other students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first, second, third, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, as well as seventh graders at the district’s middle schools.
The four Smith children are enrolled at three different schools. Their father, Jared, took leave and eventually resigned from his job in part to oversee the children’s education while their mother, Sarah, continued to work full-time in information technology.
In order to accommodate the changes, the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole family had to adjust its finances and received tribal assistance to cover the costs associated with upgrading their internet bandwidth in order to handle turning their home into a schoolhouse for four students.
Although he was used to being at home in the afternoons to help with homework prior to the pandemic, transitioning to a role comparable to all-day tutor has been a learning experience for Jared Smith.
Along with figuring out how to keep the boys engaged academically, it has meant remembering how to break down algebra problems for the oldest and explaining to the youngest learner how to tell time.
“My mother was a teacher for 40 years,” he said. “I have always respected teachers anyway, but this has taught me a lot more about the patience that is required to teach kids at multiple ages and multiple levels and with different personalities and learning styles.”
Although the family is excited at the prospect of in-person classes starting soon, the last 11 months have been a learning experience for everyone at the Smith house.
For the children, it has meant learning how to be more independent in the kitchen and how to better manage their time during the school day.
The abrupt shift in the spring meant both parents had to figure out how to help their children access their assignments in the first place, something that they say has gotten easier over time. It has also given them additional, extended insight into how each child approaches his schoolwork — whether it is primarily on his own like the oldest or, like Mason, with the occasional assist from a calculator.
“It has opened our eyes to how we can best help each of our children,” Sarah Smith said.
Across town, the last 11 months in distance learning have helped teach James and Brianah Dodson more about their children’s learning styles and needs, as well.
Prior to the pandemic, their three sons were on a transfer into Council Oak Elementary School. All three have sensory processing issues, which has made online instruction particularly challenging for their kindergartner, Jude.
While in distance learning, the Dodsons were able to confirm that he needs multiple breaks and extra time while taking required standardized tests, as well as additional practice building his fine motor skills — information they might not have ascertained quite as easily in a normal school year.
“Jude has really struggled, and that is something we will continue to work on, but it has helped me see how I can advocate for him better,” Brianah Dodson said. “Now I know especially where he is struggling.”
Despite acknowledging those challenges, the Dodsons’ three boys will finish the year online. The two older boys made that decision, in part because they had finally gotten into a routine.
“We just sat them down and asked them,” she said. “Both of them said they were fine with doing it this way and wanted to stay virtual. Since then, they’ve heard some of their friends are going back in person, and they’re kind of sad they made that choice because they miss their friends. Our fifth grader is sad that he is going to miss some of the normal fifth grade things. However, they just don’t want to be the reason that their grandparents get sick or wind up in the hospital.”
TPS students are not the only ones adjusting after 11 months of primarily relying on Zoom to interact with classmates and teachers.
Michael Broyles teaches vocal music at Hale Junior High School and neighboring Hale High School. Along with enforcing masks in class and social distancing as much as possible, he said he will be incorporating additional mitigation efforts this year. Sheet music will stay with the students rather than get reused among sections. There may be more small group numbers this year rather than having the entire choir sing together.
Even with the changes, he said he is eager to see his students face to face rather than via a laptop.
“My room is ready for kids — not 100%, but it is ready for them to be there,” he said. “I’m thrilled that they’re coming. I’m thrilled that I’ll see the kids in person. It’ll be difficult to not hug them, and I will have to keep my distance, but I am so excited to get to see them.”