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Despite improvements, Oklahoma is miles from completing upgrade of roads and bridges

Oklahoma has greatly improved its roads and bridges over the past decade and a half, but still has a long way to go — literally and figuratively — especially on the 83,000 miles and 13,600 bridges maintained by the state’s 77 county governments.

County governments are responsible for three-fourths of the state’s road miles and two-thirds of its bridges, according to figures presented to a legislative interim study earlier this month.

One in six county bridges cannot support a loaded school bus, Muskogee County Commissioner Ken Doke told the panel.

Eighty-five percent of the state’s deficient bridges are on county road systems.

Counties are even responsible for almost 5,000 miles of streets in more than 500 communities across the state.

“We’re not just talking about the Dukes of Hazzard here,” Doke said. “We’re talking about the towns within those counties.”

County road systems are funded mostly through motor fuel and vehicle taxes and in some cases severance and county sales taxes.

They are also eligible for the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges program, which is funded by the state and overseen by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

The CIRB program has pumped almost $2 billion into county transportation systems since its inception in 2006, and $880 million in projects have been approved for the next five years.

But the program has not been without controversy. Lawmakers have “borrowed” from the fund several times in recent lean years, much to the chagrin of county officials, and some say the program’s rules do not sufficiently take into account differences among counties.

In any event, CIRB is intended for large, high-priority improvements such as bridge replacements, not normal maintenance and operations.

And that normal maintenance and operations can be pretty expensive. While some of those county roads seem pretty lonely, collectively they’re traveled more than 12 million vehicle miles a day.

Texas County, in the Panhandle, has 2,400 miles of county roads. Neighboring Beaver County has more than 2,000.

Even relatively urbanized Tulsa County has more than 700 miles of county roads.

All told, counties get around $300 million a year for road maintenance and operations, which works out to $4,239 a mile — considerably less when the four largest counties by population are removed from the equation.

That isn’t much, Doke said, “when an asphalt overlay costs $150,000 a mile, or to gravel a road costs $25,000-30,000. A new road grader, a quarter of a million dollars. A new dump truck, $125,000.”

“I can usually find the money to pave about six miles a year,” said Doke, whose Muskogee County District takes in roughly 450 miles of roads. “How are we ever going to get ahead like that?”

According to a recent report by TRIP, a non-profit transportation organization, Oklahoma has the second-worst paved rural roads in the country and some of the most dangerous as measured by deaths per vehicle miles.

One of the many quirks in Oklahoma’s development may contribute to that record and, some maintain, makes the CIRB program harder for some counties to utilize.

In most of what was Indian Territory prior to statehood, rights-of-way were originally set at two rods — a surveying measurement equal to about 33 feet.

In the old Creek Nation, though, rights-of-way were three rods (49.5 feet), and in Oklahoma Territory they were four rods (66 feet).

The accepted engineering practice standard for a two-lane road is 44 feet, which means most of the original rights-of-way don’t qualify for the CIRB program unless additional right of way is acquired, and that’s expensive and often time consuming.

The result, officials said, is that eastern Oklahoma counties tend to use CIRB for bridges but not roads.

“Bridges are easier,” said Gene Wallace, executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma and a former county commissioner himself. “It’s not as many linear feet and you can normally go to the adjoining land owner and negotiate what you need. But if you’re going to improve 10 miles of road, you have 10 miles of property owners and many of them have built their house up to 15 feet of the road and maybe put their fence into the right-of-way. So you can see the kind of political issues you’ve got.”

Wallace said improvements in equipment, technology and management have made county road departments more efficient, and despite recent drops in fuel tax receipts he is optimistic.

“Like all forms of government,” he said, “the need is always going to outstrip the revenue available.”


TPS addresses potential bond packages for 2021

It’s been five years since Tulsa Public Schools put out a bond package, but another one could soon be on the way.

For the past year, district teams have been researching and discussing potential needs and projects to incorporate into the 2021 bond issue. Meanwhile, a citizens bond development committee comprising 39 appointed community members is helping provide critical feedback by identifying perceived gaps or areas of needs that aren’t included.

“They help us evaluate whether or not that bond seems to be aligned to our strategic priorities and core values,” said Ellen Duecker, bond project manager at TPS. “We ask them to look at the strengths in that bond and things that would resonate with the community when we would go out and start talking about that bond.”

The citizens committee then will present its bond proposal to Superintendent Deborah Gist and the TPS Board of Education on Nov. 10. The school board will decide on Dec. 20 whether to proceed with an election for the bond package.

If the board approves the proposal, district officials will promote the bond projects throughout January and February, and Tulsans will vote on the package on March 2.

Duecker said the citizens committee doesn’t work in isolation while it finalizes the bond package recommendation. TPS provides the committee with a framework based on its strategic plans and goals.

“We looked at the projects, and of course we want to consider life safety first,” she said. “Critical building maintenance, we want to keep our kids safe. We want to meet codes. We want to be accessible. When we look at the projects, we’re looking at that.”

Currently, the committee is looking at four bond packages ranging from safe learning environments to transportation. Another involves student technology and infrastructure, which includes the tools and services that have been used during distance learning. The fourth centers on quality teaching, learning materials and programs.


Early voting for the November elections to be held at ONEOK Field

Editor's note: This story was clarified after publication to indicate that absentee ballots can be dropped off at the Election Board office.

Who says sports and politics don’t mix?

In late October at ONEOK Field, they’ll be inextricably linked. The home of the Tulsa Drillers baseball team and the FC Tulsa soccer team will be the Tulsa County Election Board’s early voting site for the Nov. 3 election.

Early voting will be held from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 29 and 30 and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 31.

“I think the greatest benefit is that it is a large, centrally located venue and that it is open air and that there is plenty of room for people to spread out and socially distance for what we anticipate will be some very long lines,” said Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman.

The Election Board has previously held early voting for the presidential election at two locations — Hardesty Regional Library in south Tulsa and the Election Board just north of downtown. But in the age of COVID-19, Freeman said, putting large numbers of voters inside buildings is not only potentially dangerous but likely would discourage early voting.

At ONEOK Field, “we don’t have to worry about them being on top of each other, breathing each other’s air and that sort of thing,” Freeman said.

The county Election Board will not be open for early voting, but absentee ballots can be dropped off at the Election Board.

Absentee ballots cannot be dropped off at ONEOK Field.

Tulsa isn’t the first city in the country to convert a sports venue into a polling station. The National Basketball Association is converting franchise-owned-and-operated arenas into voting places as part of its effort to promote social justice and community engagement. And in Los Angeles, Major League Baseball’s Dodgers are partnering with LeBron James’ More Than a Vote coalition to turn iconic Dodgers Stadium into a polling site for the November election.

That’s where Taylor Levacy, community relations manager for the Drillers — the Dodgers double-A affiliate — got the idea to call Freeman with a pitch.

“In doing some research with Tulsa County, I noticed a big thing they had just talked about was early voting was going to be a big deal, and I thought, ‘Why not call up Gwen over at the Election Board,’” Levacy said. “And I said, ‘Hey, … would they be open to having the conversation of utilizing our stadium as an early voting location?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Levacy said voters will enter the park from the first base entrances along Elgin Avenue and exit from the home plate gate to the north.

“They’ll make their way onto the concourse and, instead of going to our concession line to order a hot dog, they are basically going to be ordering a ballot,” Levacy said.

“They’ll get their ballots from there, and then all along the concourse there are going to be the individual polling booths.

“And then as they are making their way out of the stadium, they’ll be putting their ballots into the voting machines that will be near the home plate entrance.”

Drillers President and General Manager Mike Melega said the team is proud to be able to assist in the election.

“The Drillers are such a big part of the community, and if there is an opportunity for us to jump in and help provide a safe polling place for Tulsans that might have a concern about going indoors, of course we wanted to be part of that,” Melega said. “So it was a no-brainer.”

Tulsa Transit and the city of Tulsa are also chipping in. Freeman said Tulsa Transit has committed to providing free service on the three routes that run closest to ONEOK Field — 130, 201 and 700 — during the early voting periods. And the city of Tulsa is working to provide parking near the stadium.

Freeman said she’s grateful for the cooperation and that it will be much needed. Nearly 18,000 Tulsa County residents took advantage of early voting in 2016, and Freeman expects at least that many in November.

“This is a much better idea because we can concentrate our limited staff, our limited resources in one place to guarantee that the early voting runs smoothly and efficiently for our voters and for our workers,” she said.


Oklahoma Watch: $1.9 million saved by breaking promise to seniors on college testing

Oklahoma broke a promise to the class of 2021 so it could save $1.9 million.

The state made a commitment to provide a free college admissions test for juniors at public schools beginning with the 2017 graduating class.

COVID-19 disrupted all state assessment testing last spring. Oklahoma State Department of Education officials said they planned to use the $1.9 million budgeted for the spring test to provide it this fall when those 37,000 students returned for their senior year.

That changed after the Legislature cut the department’s 2020-21 budget by $78 million, including $5.4 million less for testing.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who chairs the House committee on education appropriations, said the testing fund cut was needed to help pay for a $32 million increase in health insurance for teachers and support staff.

“We did what we had to do to get the budget to work,” he said.

The Legislature had $237.8 million less to appropriate for 2020-21 than it did a year earlier.

“We knew there would be unmet needs, and this (the ACT) was one of them,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said. “But we also knew there would be an infusion of federal relief funds to address those needs.”

Oklahoma received more than $1.2 billion from the federal CARES Act (for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security). McBride and Virgin said the state should use some of that to pay for the ACT testing.

“It’s a relatively small amount of money,” said Virgin, D-Norman. “It’s really tragic that we’re failing those seniors.”

After learning the state would not pay for the test, the Oklahoma ACT Council wrote Gov. Kevin Stitt in July to request “your consideration for using the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to do so.” The GEER fund, $39.9 million of the state’s CARES dollars, is designated to meet the needs of students and schools.

The governor has prioritized the GEER fund “for innovative new programs” and is not considering the council’s request, Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s communications chief, said Sept. 2.

Stitt has approved $10 million in GEER funds for private school students from low-income families whose attendance is threatened by the financial fallout of COVID-19. House Democrats have called it an inappropriate use of the relief money.

“It’s flat out ridiculous,” said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman. Instead of spending public dollars on private schools, the governor should use them to cover public school needs like paying for the ACT, he said.

“GEER funds should have been used for that. It’s just unfair,” Rosecrants said.

Kristy Hernandez, director of student services at Moore Public Schools and chair of the Oklahoma ACT Council, said school districts and families were counting on the state to provide the in-school free tests. Cost, transportation, work and family obligations can preclude the national-site testing offered Saturdays.

Hernandez said districtwide testing would cost Moore Public Schools about $60,000. “We don’t have the funds to do that,” she said.

Virgin said it’s not a district’s responsibility to pay for the tests. The state made the decision to use the ACT to measure education outcomes and meet federal assessment requirements, so the state should cover the cost, she said.

Oklahoma stands alone

Oklahoma is the only state forced to cancel spring ACT testing, without providing a makeup opportunity, due to COVID-19.

Twenty-one states had planned to test juniors in the spring, said Catherine Hofmann, vice president of state services at ACT, the Iowa-based nonprofit that administers the test.

“Some states were able to fully test this past spring or did summer testing to complete the testing,” Hofmann said. All the others are offering fall testing to those students who now are seniors, she said.

But Oklahoma students must enroll in one of the Saturday tests administered by ACT and pay for it themselves.

Saturdays are difficult for Enid High School senior Avrielle LeBaron because she watches her three younger siblings while their parents work. It will cost her $70 because she wants to take the optional writing portion that colleges consider when evaluating applicants. Students who opt out of that part pay $55.

National ACT tests scheduled this month in Enid have been canceled because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Trying to secure a test has been a challenge for students nationwide.

“I’m scrambling to find a way to take the ACT as soon as possible to meet my college deadlines,” LeBaron said.

She is worried she will lose out to other students if she submits applications for college admission and scholarship dollars without an ACT score.

“I may not be able to get into schools I hope to,” she said. “I’m just waiting nervously for those ACTs to become available again.”

Her first choice is the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she was born and raised. In-state choices are the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. All three schools have said freshman applicants for fall 2021 are not required to submit an ACT or SAT test score due to the pandemic.

FairTest reports that more than 1,570 four-year colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies for fall 2021 admission. But about 30% still require the test score.

ACT warns on its website that not including a score gives admissions officers an incomplete picture and could draw negative attention.

Students, state missing data

The most recent statewide data show 54% of 2019 graduates took the ACT just once.

State and district education officials say some students don’t know how smart they are or see their potential until they take the test. The results can determine whether they go to college and where.

Denise Lavoie, Enid High School testing coordinator, said students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are given waivers to pay for the test, but some parents who lost jobs during the pandemic don’t realize they can apply now that their situation has changed.

The test is used for more than college admission. It gives education officials important data for school accountability, said Christy McCreary, executive director of state assessments.

Not testing the class of 2021 will leave a gap in proficiency data. “We use them to compare students, districts and even states across test years,” McCreary said.

In the 2019, the most recent data available, Oklahoma’s 42,234 graduates had an average ACT composite score of 18.9, in the bottom third of states where 100% of students were tested.

Many Oklahoma students failed to meet ACT’s benchmarks: the minimum score needed for a student to have a 50% chance of obtaining a “B” grade or higher or 75% chance of obtaining a “C” or higher in a corresponding college course.

Of Oklahoma’s 2019 graduates, 15% met all four benchmarks and 46% met zero.

Testing this year ‘such a mess’

Tammy Raydon’s son is a senior at Westmoore High School in south Oklahoma City, where he expected to take the ACT last spring.

With that opportunity gone, Raydon registered her son for national tests scheduled in June and again in July. “Both were canceled,” she said. “They kept the money and rolled it over to the next test.”

Now he is registered to take the ACT on Saturday at Moore High School, just weeks ahead of the Oct. 1 to Feb. 1 window to apply for scholarships and college admission.

One of her son’s top three schools, the University of Central Oklahoma, still requires an ACT or SAT score on applications.

ACT reported officials at 21 sites made the call to cancel the July 18 test due to coronavirus concerns. Many of the 1,400 students affected didn’t know until they showed up for the test.

Raydon said she and fellow parents are frustrated by spending days trying to reach someone at ACT, only to get a message that they are overwhelmed because of COVID-19.

“It has been horrendous,” she said.

Raydon did receive emails from Bruce Smith, director of state partnerships, acknowledging what families are facing.

“I am so sorry that testing this year has been such a mess,” he wrote. “Preparing for and taking the ACT is stressful enough, so all the other complications just add to it.”