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Teacher sees echoes of 1990

DUNCAN  When Terrie Keck was a rookie teacher, she took part in a school walkout and days of protest at the Oklahoma Capitol as educators called attention to their low pay and the state's lack of investment in education.

Largely as a result of that walkout in 1990, state lawmakers passed House Bill 1017, which immediately infused money into schools and was considered a victory for teachers, students and the state as a whole.

Twenty-eight years later, Keck was among several hundred teachers, administrators, school support employees and others, including parents and children, who turned out Monday in Duncan to show support for another walkout. If Oklahoma lawmakers fail by April 1 to deliver a $10,000 raise for teachers, a $5,000 increase for support employees and $200 million more to restore funding that's been cut from education in recent years, educators across the state have pledged to walk out on April 2.

"I never thought we'd have to do it again," said Keck, now a veteran educator who teaches first grade special education students in Marlow.

Keck said educators "by nature" are not complainers, but "just step into the trenches" daily. But she said Oklahoma has reached a breaking point, as it did in 1990, and people who care about children  as teachers do  are right to demand action. She said many students in the state aren't allowed to take textbooks home with them because there aren't enough books in schools. She described classrooms that are too crowded because schools can't afford to hire enough teachers. Some school districts have resorted to four-day weeks or have even instructed teachers to turn lights off in their classrooms in an effort to save money. Keck added that she felt Oklahoma lawmakers over the years have been busy meeting the needs of special interest groups at the expense of schools and students.

Other educators at the meeting, representing Duncan, Marlow, Comanche, Empire and Velma-Alma and including a number of retired teachers and administrators, expressed the same feelings of intense frustration. Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, listed a number of opportunities that Oklahoma lawmakers and voters have missed in recent years to increase funding and restore confidence in the state's education system. As a result, she said teachers haven't received a raise in 10 years, Oklahoma ranks 49th in teacher pay and last in the region, the state is losing educators to other states, and far too few young people are studying in state colleges and universities for careers in education. Currently, there are fewer than 300.

Duncan Superintendent Melonie Hau said Duncan has been dealing with the harsh realities for years. Since 2015, she said the district's budget has been cut by $3.2 million, she's had to cut 40 certified and support positions from the payroll to make ends meet and has had to hire 14 "emergency-certified" teachers to take jobs that no certified teachers have applied for. She said the district has had a slot open for a special education teacher since August, with no takers. The district typically hears from only a handful of applicants at best for any job, and it's not unusual to get no applicants for jobs teaching math or science.

"We are in a crisis," Hau said. "We know that it has come to this (potential walkout) because we care about our students. We want students who are thriving and not just surviving, and right now our students and teachers are just surviving."

Hau took some questions about what teachers and others might expect if a walkout occurs. She said Duncan builds the potential for missed school days into its calendar each year, so if the district closes as a result of a walkout for a few days, personnel wouldn't lose pay or benefits for those days.

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