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Duncan schools in crisis

DUNCAN - Oklahoma's repeated cuts in education funding over the past eight years have left Duncan schools in a crisis that may soon affect major programs like sports, band, vocational-agriculture and fine arts and result in teacher job losses and fewer remaining teachers being responsible for larger numbers of students in classrooms, according to Superintendent Melonie Hau.

"I just want people to understand that this is a crisis," the Duncan superintendent said, "and the decisions we're being forced to make aren't what's best for students or communities." 

Hau said Duncan has managed to absorb cuts dating back at least to 2008 by reducing payroll through attrition and by making tough decisions to cut some jobs completely, like an assistant superintendent's post and an assistant principal's position, and to add to responsibilities of counselors and others. 

The district also has cut some programs that were expensive and didn't affect large numbers of students. Home economics is one, for example, that the district used to have but no longer does. Driver's education, too, has veered off the list of curriculum choices offered to students.

Other expenses have been trimmed by putting off purchases of new textbooks, delaying purchases of technology and turning more to free sources of classroom materials offered through the Internet. Additionally, the district employs fewer people now than it did a few years ago to take care of day-to-day upkeep of school buildings or to fix things when they break.

Hau, who was an assistant superintendent in Enid before coming to Duncan last year, said decisions made by former Superintendent Sherry Labyer and Duncan School Board members positioned the district to endure cuts, "but now we've cut to the point that any kind of strategic cuts a district would make naturally, we've already done that. We're in much deeper now," she said.

Eric Davis, president of Duncan's Board of Education, said "every penny" was squeezed out of money raised after Duncan's last school bond issue and district decision makers have been grateful for every penny saved on fuel resulting from cheaper gas prices over the past year. But he agreed with Hau that "incremental savings" won't be enough to spare Duncan pain in the future if the Oklahoma Legislature can't come up with a better way to fund education.

"We've cut everything incrementally that we can," Davis said, "to the point that there's nothing left to cut except major programs."

The Duncan district's share of state budget cuts last year amounted to about $1.2 million. Another $380,000 has been cut so far this school year and administrators across the state have been told to plan for another 3 percent cut before spring. Hau said the state's budget mess will extend into next year as well. In Duncan, the share of anticipated cuts may amount to another $1 million.

Students and teachers have already been affected, she said, adding that it irritates her to hear people say that schools ought to be run more like businesses, where managers might reduce supply because of a decline in demand. Oklahomans shouldn't be asked to "streamline" their children's education.

Hau said Duncan's student population in recent years has hovered in the range of 3,600 to 3,800, so to this point it wouldn't be feasible for the district to close any schools, as Lawton has done as part of its response to budget cuts. 

"For right now, no, but depending on how long this goes on, yes," she said of that possibility.

The district may have to consider cutting teacher positions and increasing classroom sizes, however. That might mean, for example, that instead of dividing 60 students into three classrooms of 20 each, they might have to be divided into two classrooms of 30 each.

"If things get that bad, that can't be off the table," Hau said. She said that in some districts in the state teachers are already responsible for managing 150 to 160 students daily.

The Lawton Constitution

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