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Watch Now: Stitt announces new school quarantine policy to increase in-person learning; not all state education leaders on board
  • Updated

OKLAHOMA CITY – In an effort to increase the number of districts providing an in-person learning option, Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday announced a policy change.

However, not all state education leaders are in agreement with it.

Districts which require masks will no longer have to quarantine for two weeks if a person is exposed to COVID-19, unless the individual is showing symptoms, Stitt said.

“Schools should continue to require quarantines for exposed students in situations where masking and distancing protocols were not followed,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye.

The new quarantine policy does not apply if exposure occurs during an after-school activity or in sports, Frye said.

Most districts have been open and returned to in-person learning this week, which is the right call, Stitt said.

“Sadly, just a few blocks can make a big difference in the world,” Stitt said. “Students in Broken Arrow were able to go to school for 66 days in the fall semester. The state’s largest high school found a way to get this done.”

The district, said Stitt, was determined to provide in-person learning opportunities for students.

“Just minutes away, Tulsa Public Schools, their high schoolers haven’t been in the building for 305 days ... 305 days, all because you live a couple blocks the wrong direction,” Stitt said.

The governor maintained school closures features many harmful consequences, such as preventing student access to mental and social services and decreased reporting on child abuse.

“And it widens achievement gaps that already exist across income levels and races,” he said.

Frye said the state will be “doubling the amount of tests provided to schools to encourage frequent testing to catch positive cases early.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was asked about her reaction to the announcement.

“While this option underscores the need for mask requirements in school, I cannot in good conscience support ignoring quarantine guidelines from the CDC and other infectious disease experts,” she said in a written statement. “There is no doubt we all want our students and teachers to be safely in the classroom, but COVID is raging in Oklahoma.

“In-person instruction is critical and so is mitigating the spread of the virus. They are not mutually exclusive.”

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said Stitt’s remarks were confusing.

“He calls for no quarantining when there is a mask policy but won’t demand strong mask policies,” Priest said.

In addition, he preaches local control, unless he disagrees with it, she said.

“Local school boards, who listen to parents in their communities, are the decision makers for our Oklahoma schools,” she said.

Tulsa Public Schools are currently in distance learning for the next several weeks.

Pre-K through third grade can return to in-person learning on Jan. 25, while grades four through 12 can return Feb. 1, said Lauren Partain Barber, a TPS spokeswoman.

“Throughout the pandemic, our district leaders have been consistent,” Tulsa Public Schools and the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association said in a joint statement. “When making decisions, we use science and data, and we follow the guidance of our public health professionals.

“The COVID rates for Tulsa County and all of Oklahoma are at their highest point. In fact, Oklahoma is again a ‘top ten’ state for COVID cases and positivity rates, and there is no indication that rates will decline soon particularly since we have no state mask requirement.”

Stitt has repeatedly declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying he didn’t believe it could be enforced, though he supported local control on face-coverings.

Bixby Schools, in response to Stitt’s announcement, said it “had no advance knowledge of this information prior to the governor’s press conference this afternoon and are awaiting final written guidance from the state before making any changes to our existing protocol.”

“Should this guidance result in any changes to our current protocol, we will communicate with employees and families,” the district said in a statement.

COVID-19: Quarantine and isolation 101

COVID-19: Quarantine and isolation 101

School funding adjusted: Tulsa County districts down $31 million; Epic gains $156 million
  • Updated

Dramatic shifts in public school enrollment to virtual charter schools because of the pandemic just resulted in significant midyear reductions in state aid allocations to many Oklahoma school districts.

An influx of new students netted Epic Charter Schools’ two primarily online school choices an additional $156 million, while four other growing online schools picked up another $13.9 million.

But about 500 of the state’s 509 school districts and 31 charter schools saw reductions, with almost 120 of those down 10% or more from what the state told them to expect in late August.

In Tulsa County, traditional school districts saw a reduction of nearly $31 million in all.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the dramatic midyear shift in funding “will make a difficult school year even more difficult for many districts.”

In making midyear adjustments for fiscal year 2021, state education officials distributed the final remaining 1.52%, or $34.3 million, in state aid for the fiscal year ending June 30.

This process of reserving a small portion of annual state aid for schools was designed decades ago to deliver additional taxpayer dollars in the middle of the fiscal year to districts that had seen student enrollment increases since the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

The formula used for calculating the adjustments includes more funding for students whose household income levels are so low that they qualify for free or reduced-rate school lunches, as well as for English-language learners, gifted and talented students, and those with special education needs.

But the introduction of virtual charter schools and private school scholarships — and especially dramatic growth in virtual school enrollment and scholarship recipients in the past five years — has turned the process on its head.

“Given the realities of the pandemic and resulting fluctuation of enrollment numbers, the midyear adjustment is disheartening even as schools have been bracing for its impact,” Hofmeister told the Tulsa World in a written statement. “It will make a difficult school year even more difficult for many districts.”

Bixby, Owasso, Tulsa and Broken Arrow led the county in the percent of state aid reductions from the allocation notices sent out in late August.

Administrators in those districts said they all anticipated state funding cuts by this point in budgeting for FY 2021, but most said the midyear reductions were twice as bad as their own worst-case estimates.

“I was just shocked when I saw those numbers,” said Union Superintendent Kirt Hartzler. “There needs to be more of a governor on the profits being made on the backs of public school students here in Oklahoma.”

Trish Williams, the chief financial officer at Union who previously served in the same role for Tulsa Public Schools and Broken Arrow Public Schools, said Union’s budget was crafted based on an estimated midyear reduction in state aid of $1.1 million — a far cry from the nearly $3 million adjustment just handed down by the state Department of Education.

“Something like 84% of schools lost money on the midterm adjustment. That’s just unbelievable to me,” Williams said. “The issue is not the (state aid funding) formula — the issue here is Epic. What we are dealing with here is Epic and their staggering level of growth.”

Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield said that because his school system’s initial state aid allocation was based on its 2019-20 student enrollment and Epic’s student enrollment doubled for 2020-21, Epic had inadequate funding to educate its students for the entire first semester.

“That is why our board of education had to approve taking out loans to get us to midyear. Our midyear funding … simply provides EPIC with the per pupil funding required for its student population. The midyear adjustment is not extra funding for us, and it would be the same scenario for any public school in Oklahoma that doubled in size in one school year,” Banfield said in a written statement.

“Student funding discussions are important and timely; policy makers will have to decide whether future funding should be dedicated to building costs or whether it should truly follow the students — no matter which public school they choose.”

Charter schools have no local tax base like traditional school districts, so they see a more significant increase when their enrollment goes up.

In early December, school finance chiefs from many of the biggest districts in the state called on the governor, attorney general and State Superintendent Hofmeister to intervene ahead of the looming financial windfall for Epic Charter Schools, which is under investigation by state and federal law enforcement authorities.

The chief financial officers from 14 school districts — Tulsa, Ardmore, Bartlesville, Broken Arrow, Enid, Lawton, Moore, Muskogee, Mustang, Norman, Putnam City, Tahlequah, Union and Yukon — had called on state leaders to see to it that Epic’s midyear adjustment be “stayed or modified” until Epic’s student “enrollment numbers and other business practices are verified to be lawful and compliant.”

According to a written response to those district officials from Monty Guthrie, deputy state superintendent of finance and federal programs, no such action was possible under state statute.

“Oklahoma law expressly requires (the Oklahoma State Department of Education) to determine each school district’s current year allocation (the midyear allocation) by completing a review and verification of student enrollment data and pupil category counts that are used in the state aid formula,” Guthrie wrote in the letter, a public record furnished to the Tulsa World by Moore Public Schools.

“In light of these requirements, and notwithstanding the ongoing reviews of information, communications and exchanges of data, and demands of Epic, that may result in the assessment of penalties by OSDE3, the midyear adjustment and allocations to schools will be provided to all schools by January 15, 2021.”

Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller said he was “disappointed” by this week’s news of midyear state aid adjustments, offering the same explanation as Broken Arrow Superintendent Janet Vinson.

Both of those district leaders said other school districts with high counts of low-income students will receive the lion’s share of federal pandemic assistance for public schools because of the way federal officials determined relief money should be distributed.

And at least for this year, that assistance will help offset state aid reductions for those other districts — and Miller and Vinson’s complaint is that some of those districts, like Tulsa Public Schools, have offered little to no in-person instruction while their districts have had their doors open since Day 1 of the 2020-21 academic year.

“Our $6.7 million (in federal CARES Act relief) doesn’t even cover the gap of our midterm cut,” said Vinson. “I understand that each community has different sentiment about whether to be in school, in person or not. However, the frank reality is that we have significant additional cost when in school.”

Bixby will receive more than $1.8 million less in state aid than was projected by the state in August.

“When it comes to school funding in Oklahoma, the truth is that bad news is usually good news for someone else,” Miller said. “The federal government directed these (CARES Act) funds to be distributed through existing Title I formulas, instead of student counts. This will result in even more inequities in funding in schools across Oklahoma.

“Since Bixby does not have a high percentage of students who qualify for low-income Title I funding, the amount of federal support we will receive will be as little as one-tenth the amount as some other Oklahoma schools on a per-pupil basis.”

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Black leaders want Sen. Lankford exiled from Tulsa Race Massacre Commission after Electoral College challenge
  • Updated

Several prominent Black Tulsans have called for U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s removal or resignation from the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Committee because of his involvement in last week’s doubtful efforts to delay, discredit or even overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s certification as the next president of the United States.

Lankford, a Republican, has been active on the committee and is credited with helping raise the centennial’s profile nationally and building relationships with powerful white conservatives in Oklahoma.

But Black Tulsa leaders say Lankford compromised the commission by advocating a 10-day delay in certifying the electoral votes in Biden’s favor so a commission could further investigate challenges lodged by President Donald Trump.

“This is a great example of black people voting in record numbers, with a coalition of people who look different, who are being told, ‘No, their votes didn’t count,’” said state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.

Lankford said he never considered that asking for an election review could have racial overtones.

Now, he said, he understands differently.

“I was shocked (when Black friends) said to me, ‘This was about keeping African Americans from voting.’ My comment to them was, ‘That never crossed my mind. Why would I do that? Why would I think that?’

“I’ve had some time now to visit with them and to hear them out, and I understand where they’re coming from,” Lankford said.

“Some people caught me and said, ‘Let me describe it to you this way’ — and they were spot on with this — ‘You hear the president say, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania are problems. We hear the president say, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia are problems.’

“And I said, ‘You’re exactly correct. I hear what you’re saying now.’”

State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, has had a good relationship with Lankford but says the senator completely misjudged African Americans’ perception of the election and politics in general.

“Let me tell you what racism feels like to Black people,” Matthews said. “When you tell us the rules and why we can’t be president before (Barack) Obama or vice president, we have to jump through these hoops, and as we’re jumping through the hoops you move the goalposts. And you keep moving them. And when we get to the goalposts, you want to check our ID and our credentials over and over and over.

“We have a black woman (Sen. Kamala Harris), the first black woman with an opportunity to be vice president and possible opportunity to be president — she’s at least next in line — and now is when we want to put out all of these extra alarms? That’s what Black people think.”

Lankford says Harris is “a friend of mine” and he never intended to overturn the presidential election. Instead, he said, he was trying to start “an ongoing debate” about election security and has been “lumped in” with “people doing something very different.”

After rioters identified as Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, Lankford dropped his objection and voted to certify the Electoral College results.

But back in Tulsa, Lankford’s actions were seen as a betrayal by Black Tulsans whose trust he’d worked years to cultivate.

“When Trump was on his way (last summer) to Oklahoma for Juneteenth (June 19), I called Sen. Matthews and said, ‘Hey, you need to talk to Lankford.’ I didn’t choose anybody else. ... Lankford is willing to listen,” said Black Wall Street Times Publisher Nehemiah Frank.

By several accounts, Lankford helped defuse what could have been a volatile situation that, in the end, resulted in Trump delaying his appearance for a day and staying away from the traditional Greenwood District.

He has spoken about the massacre several times on the Senate floor and had public forums in Greenwood.

But while Nichols and Frank say Lankford deserves credit for his efforts, they also say he should resign or be removed from the committee. They say their trust is shaken by Lankford’s decision to give any credence to claims that no court or election authority has accepted.

“I do believe Lankford has some integrity,” said Frank. “I do. And I think he tries to be strategic in how he moves. But not at the price of Black people being harmed.”

To some extent, the anger directed toward Lankford is because he has been more visible than some members. First District Congressman Kevin Hern is also on the committee but has attracted little attention, despite actually voting on Wednesday to reject some election results.

The situation illustrates the difficulties confronting the centennial committee as it tries to pull together many disparate interests, entities and people to create the message of reconciliation that is its mission statement.

Put another way, it’s a matter of how strongly individuals can disagree and still work together — a situation not unlike that in Washington.

Matthews said he will let Lankford and the committee members decide, after a cooling off period, where they come down on that. But he does say more than one member would have trouble passing a purity test.

“If people start digging and reading,” Matthews said, refusing to name names, “there would be a bunch of people not on this (committee).”

The situation also illustrates the political realities of Black Tulsans and other minorities in Oklahoma, as Matthews knows well. When issues are reduced to race, the math just doesn’t add up.

As Lankford said again this week, his election commission proposal attempted to address the concerns of constituents who, correctly or not, seem convinced or at least suspicious about the election results in other states.

Presumably Trump voters, these constituents are mostly white, and just about all likely voters in the 2022 Republican primary, when Lankford’s current term ends.

By contrast, few Republican primary votes are to be found among Black Tulsans.

“We don’t want this to end up being a political us versus them,” said Matthews. “I think that takes away from the work of reconciliation.”

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House races to oust Trump

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House rushed ahead Tuesday toward impeaching President Donald Trump for the deadly Capitol attack, taking time only to try to persuade his vice president to push him out first. Trump showed no remorse, blaming impeachment itself for the “tremendous anger” in America.

Already scheduled to leave office next week, Trump is on the verge of becoming the only president in history to be twice impeached. His incendiary rhetoric at a rally ahead of the Capitol uprising is now in the impeachment charge against him, even as the falsehoods he spread about election fraud are still being championed by some Republicans.

The House convened Tuesday night to vote on urging Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove Trump with a Cabinet vote. But shortly before that, Pence said he would not do so in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He said that it would not be in the best interest of the nation or consistent with the Constitution and that it was “time to unite our country as we prepare to inaugurate President-elect Joe Biden.”

Meanwhile, three three Republican lawmakers, including third-ranking House GOP leader Liz Cheney of Wyoming, announced they would vote to impeach Trump on Wednesday, cleaving the Republican leadership, and the party itself.

“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” said Cheney in a statement. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Two Republicans, Reps. John Katko of New York, a former federal prosecutor, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an Air Force veteran, announced they, too, would vote to impeach.

As lawmakers reconvened at the Capitol for the first time since the bloody siege, they were bracing for more violence ahead of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Jan. 20.

“All of us have to do some soul searching,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, imploring other Republicans to join.

Trump, meanwhile, warned the lawmakers off impeachment and suggested it was the drive to oust him that was dividing the country.

“To continue on this path, I think it’s causing tremendous danger to our country, and it’s causing tremendous anger,” Trump said.

In his first remarks to reporters since last week’s violence, the outgoing president offered no condolences for those dead or injured, only saying, “I want no violence.”

With Pence’s agreement to invoke the 25th Amendment ruled out, the House will move swiftly to impeachment on Wednesday.

Trump faces a single charge — “incitement of insurrection” — in the impeachment resolution after the most serious and deadly domestic incursion at the Capitol in the nation’s history.

A handful of other House Republicans could join in the impeachment vote, but it’s not clear there would be a two-thirds vote needed to convict from the narrowly divided Senate, though some Republicans say it’s time for Trump to resign.

The unprecedented events, with just over a week remaining in Trump’s term, are unfolding in a nation bracing for more unrest. The FBI has warned ominously of potential armed protests in Washington and many states by Trump loyalists ahead of Biden’s inauguration and Capitol Police warned lawmakers to be on alert. The inauguration ceremony on the west steps of the Capitol will be off limits to the public.

Lawmakers were required to pass through metal detectors to enter the House chamber, not far from where Capitol police, guns drawn, had barricaded the door against the rioters. Some Republican lawmakers complained about it.

A Capitol police officer died from injuries suffered in the riot, and police shot a woman during the violence. Three other people died in what authorities said were medical emergencies.

In the Senate, Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joined GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska over the weekend in calling for Trump to “go away as soon as possible.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, did not go that far, but on Tuesday called on Trump to address the nation and explicitly urge his supporters to refrain from further violence. If not, he said, Trump “will bear responsibility.”

No member of the Cabinet has publicly called for Trump to be removed from office through the 25th Amendment.

Biden has said it’s important to ensure that the “folks who engaged in sedition and threatening the lives, defacing public property, caused great damage — that they be held accountable.”

Fending off concerns that an impeachment trial would bog down Biden’s first days in office, the president-elect is encouraging senators to divide their time between taking taking up his priorities of confirming his nominees and approving COVID relief while also conducting the trial.

One of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was among those echoing the president, saying “impeachment at this time would have the opposite effect of bringing our country together.”

House Democrats say they have the votes for impeachment. The impeachment bill drafted by Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Ted Lieu of California, during the riot lockdown, and joined by Raskin of Maryland and Jerrold Nadler of New York draws from Trump’s own false statements about his election defeat to Biden.