In an emotional meeting on the evening of May 6, the Bartlesville Board of Education voted to close Oak Park Elementary School.
“We want every student in the district – all 5,900 of them – to have the best education possible,” said Rainey. “That will always be our goal, and we’ll work diligently to achieve it.”
The decision – which was made during a special gathering on the Bartlesville High School campus – came as a response to continued cuts in state funding endured by the Bartlesville Public School District as well as school districts throughout Oklahoma. BPSD officials project they can save an estimated $600,000 annually by closing Oak Park, which with an enrollment of 262 students is the smallest of the BPSD’s seven elementary schools.
The BPSD’s state funding was cut by approximately $1.4 million cumulatively over the course of the last three years. The cut was actually much deeper than that, but money from the federal stimulus package helped limit the damage to $1.4 million. But as BPSD officials look ahead to the upcoming 2011-12 academic year, they are projecting a cut of another $2.2 million to the district. The full brunt of that cut will be felt as the federal stimulus aid runs out for school districts throughout the country after the current 2010-11 academic year.
In the last three years, Oklahoma legislators have cut funding for common education – which is defined as education for students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade – by a combined $400 million.
Board member Rhonda Parnell began to cry as she cast the first vote in favor of closing Oak Park, which originally opened in 1956. Though each of the votes was somberly cast, the decision was ultimately unanimous.
Board president Doug Divelbiss called for a five-minute recess after the vote so the board members and all of those in attendance at the meeting – which included BPSD personnel and parents and supporters from Oak Park as well as media members – could collect themselves.
“That’s probably the hardest decision,” said Divelbiss, who has served since 2006 and is the most experienced member of the board, “we’ll ever have to make as board members.”
With the decision made, Oak Park will close at the end of the current academic year, which is due to conclude throughout the BPSD on Friday, May 27.
As part of the action topic during Thursday evening’s special meeting, which took place in the Fine Arts Center hospitality room at BHS, new attendance boundaries were accepted to account for six elementary schools within the BPSD instead of the current seven. With the newly adopted changes, all of those students who lived in the Oak Park district, which is found in the far northwest corner of Bartlesville, will now be part of the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School district. In all, the newly configured map is expected to affect approximately 400 of the district’s estimated 5,900 students. The affected group includes approximately 200 students who live in the Oak Park neighborhood, 150 who live in other elementary school districts which have been slightly adjusted due to the reconfigurations, and another 50 at the secondary level who reside in altered areas regarding the middle school boundaries.
Of Oak Park’s 262 students, 63 transfer into the school from either in or out of district.
The new district attendance boundary maps – which reflect the changes made in the wake of the Oak Park closing – can be found on the front page of the BPSD website at www.bps-ok.org.
In the last three years, as cuts to state funding forced the district to make budget reductions, among the ways it realized cost savings was by cutting 23 full-time teaching positions. Even with the decision now made to close Oak Park, which will save the district $600,000 annually, more cuts will need to be made to account for the full $2.2 million. Among those reductions for the 2011-12 academic year could be the loss of another eight teaching positions for an estimated savings of $378,416.
With Oklahoma legislators making continued cuts to common education over the past several years, the BPSD, like districts throughout the state, has become accustomed to tightening its belt. But with less fat to trim, the cuts become more and more painful, as reflected in the decision to close Oak Park.
“I don’t want to vote ‘yes,’ and I don’t want to vote ‘no,’” said board vice president Ben Rainey prior to Thursday evening’s vote. “I don’t want to vote on this at all. I wish we weren’t in this situation at all.”
The irony of the situation is that the BPSD has been in very solid financial standing for the past several years. The district’s “fund balance” – the money which it has on hand to pay its bills – has been healthy, in the neighborhood of $5 million. But continued cuts made to common education by state legislators – approximately 60 percent of the BPSD’s budget comes from state funding – have most assuredly been felt. The BPSD is expected to use at least $1 million from its “fund balance” to help ease the pains of state funding cuts during the 2011-12 academic year. But should the fund balance run too low, the district runs the risk of running out of money and not being able to pay its bills. District officials have been particularly conservative with their budget while meticulously watching their fund balance as they braced for the cuts from the state.
State law requires public school districts to have balanced budgets. District officials and board members can be held legally accountable if they aren’t.
“We can’t pay payroll with a bank loan,” said Divelbiss, speaking to the possibility of the district’s fund balance dipping precariously low. “We just can’t let that happen.
As Oak Park will now be closed, Wilson Elementary will soon hold a special welcoming event to properly greet the new incoming students and help them acclimate to their new building. Wilson is located in a growing area of Bartlesville and when it opens its doors for the 2011-12 academic year, it will do so with six newly added classrooms, products of the $29.95 million school bond issue which voters passed in 2007. Questions in regard to transfers and transportation for students can be answered at each school as well as the district’s Education Service Center.
Oak Park has 37 employees. As the BPSD has a natural attrition rate of approximately 50 to 60 employees in a given year, all of them should have the opportunity to take another position within the district. The Oak Park employees were informed of the board’s decision by BPSD administrators this morning.
Though the decision to close Oak Park was obviously a difficult one, all of those associated with the BPSD remain confident in their ability to help the students in their care thrive. The district consistently boasts some of the top test scores in the state. When the latest Academic Performance Index scores were posted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education last fall, the BPSD had the third best score – a lofty 1,285 – among the 32 largest districts in the state. The OSDE uses the API to monitor the academic integrity of districts – and the schools which comprise them – throughout the state. A testing series which was originally implemented in 2002, the BPSD has seen its score improve every year.
Oak Park, which originally opened in 1956, is one of seven elementary schools within the Bartlesville Public School District. It is the smallest of those sites with 262 students.