by Senior Writer Britni Sharde
“There appears to be a disconnect between the people that run Tulsa’s education system and the people that work for them,” said community advocate Kelsey Royce. According to several sources, support staff have experienced unfair working conditions while being unappreciated and underpaid for years. In April of 2018, teachers in school districts across the state met at the state capital to advocate for a raise and increased funding for public education. After a six-day strike, teachers received a raise of at least $1,200, while support staff (as of late December of 2019) only received a $0.30 per hour pay increase. Before the agreed-upon pay increase, TPS offered a pay increase to support staff of about 1.5%, according to the Tulsa World, while the initial request was for 6%. The eventual pay raise settlement of $0.30 was only a 2% increase.
An organization called Working People Lead Tulsa assists with organizing support staff under the American Federation of Teachers Tulsa, also known as AFT 6049 Tulsa. In October of 2019, WPLT published an article about this issue, stating that “nickel-and-diming the support staff evidences what many of us see as hypocrisy because it reinforces and furthers the socio-economic disadvantages and inequities that take up space in this city and in far too many of our communities.” Social scientist Scott Carter explained that many of the support staff feel unheard despite having elected leadership within TPS that are tasked with hearing and responding to their needs. He proceeded to suggest that “A healthy and vibrant democracy equals a healthy and vibrant workforce.”
The TPS Board of Education, during their State of the District address in September of 2019, prided themselves on the work being done to create a healthy public school system. However, the Board of Education did not address how the school community of North Tulsa specifically could have a healthy public school system when it’s internal employees are disenfranchised. Staff have reported incidents around a variety of ongoing issues, from carbon monoxide poisoning from unkempt equipment to outdated bathrooms, which have caused injury to some staff members and that get little to no attention from those tasked with remedying these concerns.
TPS has, however, proven its willingness to invest in organizations like Sodexo. Sodexo is a multinational, Fortune 500 food service and facility management organization based in France that services TPS by providing management and operation services. According to their website, they offer options from receptionists and groundskeepers to vendor management and meal delivery. The issue with organizations like Sodexo is that every TPS food service worker answers to this outsourced company. Over the last decade, Sodexo has been the target of multiple protests and criticism from several colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington, for their mistreatment of employees. A common issue with outsourcing is that a company contractually hires another organization to execute tasks that could reasonably be done in-house. Money invested in outsourced organizations is viewed by some community members as offensive because those funds could be utilized within the institutions instead of creating another layer of bureaucracy.
As our local economy has reportedly improved over the years for some sectors, the receptionist, the janitor, the cafeteria personnel, and all of the people that work diligently to service North Tulsa schools are often plagued with obligations that people in other jobs would not be expected to tolerate. A custodian employed at a TPS high school expressed concern around unsatisfactory working conditions, such as the shortage of custodians working in the high school in the evenings. There are currently only 4 custodians to cover the 266,000 square footage of the entire building. This source stated that oftentimes when concerns are made to management, they are rarely addressed.
Ideally, the work done by school support staff should be compensated at a reasonable and economically sound rate. This would mean considering the current state of the economy and being sure to fully consider the wages for all employees acknowledging that the current wage does not suffice. Over the years, support staff members’ appeals to be taken seriously by Tulsa Public Schools as an integral part of the success of any student’s education have come up short. TPS has not, as of late, fulfilled its duties in the eyes of its essential workforce to maintain a satisfactory work environment and in adequately providing a livable wage. According to Scott Carter, it appears that “exploitation of labor is greater than remuneration.”
Photo credit: Mike Simons/Tulsa World