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School Consolidation Bill Dies In Committee As Huge Crowd Gathers To Demonstrate

A highly-anticipated bill calling for low-performing elementary school districts to be annexed into more successful districts stalled in committee Monday.

Dozens of opponents gathered at the state Capitol for the hearing on state Rep. Lee Denney’s House Bill 2824. The House Speaker Pro Tem says her intent is to reduce overhead and increase classroom spending.

“I know that we have too many school districts in this state, and a lot of people in this room, behind closed doors, would agree with me,” the Republican from Cushing said. “So, this is just a way to start the conversation about what we’re going to do with the high number of schools.”

But state Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Muskogee, said it would take power away from local school boards.

“What we’re voting on here is a question of giving validity to continued belief in local democracy, and if we vote for this, we’re doing away with it,” Cannaday said.

During committee debate, Denney disagreed with an assertion by state Rep. Jason Dunnington, R-Oklahoma City, that Oklahoma has the nation’s largest percentage cut to education spending since 2008.

“We can look at the data. We can skew it any way we want to, and I believe different groups do it to their benefit,” Denney said.

According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending is down 24 percent since 2008, which leads the U.S. Denney says that calculation ignores student population growth. The Appropriations and Budget Education subcommittee voted 8-3 against sending the bill to the full House. State Rep. Emily Virgin voted against the measure, and called its defeat a win for public education.

“This is what happens when citizens are engaged in the process,” Virgin said on Twitter. She said the defeat keeps local control of schools, and allows students and parents to stay in schools that serve them well. She also said the bill passed judgment on schools based on a controversial A-F grading system she called “highly flawed.”

Denney disagreed with that assertion, but Virgin said the grade directly correlates to how many low income students are in a particular campus, eCapitol’s Cynthia Santos reports:

“We need to be working with those kids. I think it’s valid to know that we may not be doing the best job that we can with our free and reduced lunch kids,” said Denney. “We know we’re going to have a shortfall, we need to make the funding equitable. We’re not closing these schools but bringing them under independent school districts.”

Rep. Todd Thompsen, R-Ada, asked Denney whether or not there any provision that requires that the receiving school to have a certain letter grade themselves. Thompsen’s question was met with applause by members of the audience.

“That should be looked at. I’m not opposed to that at all. This is conversation starter,” said Denney. “If they’re going to be annexed, it ought to be into a school district that is serving our students adequately.”

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