By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — On Friday, the Cleveland County Democratic Party hosted guest speaker Norman Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joe Siano to discuss information and issues that affect community schoolchildren.
Siano covered an extensive amount of information in his presentation, including everything from enrollment statistics to academic performance to current programs, and he encouraged questions from attendees.
Siano said all of the statistical information presented was used by the school district as a tool to understand how the district might need to change.
“We use information about the ethnicity of our students or the number of students who receive free lunches to recognize we can’t do what we did 20 years ago because the student population isn’t the same,” Siano said. “Unlike other school districts, we don’t use these changes in demographics as an excuse to do poorly in other areas.
“Because of the quality of our administration and teachers, our academics have continued to increase. We consider the change of demographics a positive — a wealth of culture.”
The event was full of longtime Democratic party supporters and newer attendees like Sandra McMahan who said it was her first time to attend a Democratic Party function.
“I have three grandchildren who attend Norman Public Schools, so I am very interested in the direction Norman Public Schools will be going this year,” McMahan said.
Elma Gonzalez, of Little Axe, wanted to know if recent budget cuts since the recession had affected the quality of teachers and if these teachers reflected current student demographics.
Siano said the school district rarely has recruiting problems, but special education teachers are a challenge to find, and while the teaching staff may more closely resemble student demographics than it did in the past, the school district hires for quality. Siano said quality and leadership were key all the way up to the district level.
“We have to have leadership at the district level. We need equity across the district, and this requires answering the question ‘What are we doing for every kid?’” Siano said.
McMahan questioned whether this dedication to every kid and equity really exists in the school district.
“Some of the schools in the area seem to get more or less funding from the district. Kennedy Elementary, for example, seems to get less. Is equity a real problem?”
Siano dismissed what he called a common rumor and explained that because of different schools’ demographics, schools may get other federal funding and some schools are just older.
“Kennedy Elementary, for instance, just got $2 million in the our last bond issue. Inequity is categorically not an issue. It is a misconception people have about the district,” Siano said.
Additionally, teacher salaries were discussed as Siano explained that the school system has $20 million less funding than they did in 2008 and an across-the-board salary increase like one Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi recently proposed is not a feasible option.
“I am not an isolationist. I don’t think all of the funding of one department should be given to education,” Siano said. “What I am advocating is that everyone took a hit during the recession, and it is time to figure out how we can start building back.”
With such varied discussion throughout the luncheon, Siano emphasized that the school district cares about the things that are important to the community, whether that is teachers’ salaries, continuing programs like the OKC Food Bank backpack program or district finances.
“As educators, it is our job to facilitate the things that are important to you, our students and the community,” Siano said.