One recent frigid morning at the public schools' central office here, nearly 80 mothers and grandfathers, lawyers and business executives packed a cramped meeting room for a primer on the rudiments of substitute teaching -- the first of 11 planned sessions attracting hundreds of volunteers.
It was a quick and powerful response to a city's desperate pleas for help in defraying a $6 million education budget shortfall -- and to the school district's stunning announcement that it could not afford to hire substitute teachers for the remainder of the school year. It was also a brutal reminder that a city once flush with oil, wildcatters and private jets was in a budgetary crisis.
"Everyone knows these are tough financial times," said Mary Howell, executive director of personnel services for Tulsa Public Schools. "We're pulling together."
And scrimping to find every new opportunity for cash. It's not just happening in Tulsa. Cities and states alike are being hit by an economic downturn and diminishing tax revenue. States throughout the nation are facing debilitating budget deficits, which have resulted in less aid to the largest of urban areas and the tiniest of hamlets.
At the same time, city budgets are being squeezed by the poor economy. Floundering businesses and extensive layoffs, combined with a precarious stock market, are causing local tax revenue to plunge, creating more crippling deficits. Here and in cities from Spokane, Wash., to New York, the impact is seen immediately and felt the hardest.
In Tucson, school principals are asking parents to bring in toilet paper and sponges to barter for other school supplies. In Minneapolis, one woman persuaded local businesses to help defray the operating costs of a bus route -- which was about to be cut -- that takes riders from a poor part of town to a shopping district. In Huntington Beach, Calif., officials plan to introduce a citywide credit card -- with the "Surf City" logo -- which could generate $2 million annually.
Tulsa's struggle brings with it a unique story: that of a small city with a rich, century-old history of oil, wealth and philanthropy that rivals some of the nation's largest urban centers. Once known as "the oil capital of the world," Tulsa endured the oil bust of the mid-1980s as well as a near economic depression that forced banks to fold and executives to flee town, pushing the city to diversify -- and eventually thrive again.
Now, in interviews with business leaders, art patrons and city officials, an unspoken anxiety surfaces: Harsh times may be returning. In the past year, Tulsa has weathered at least 4,000 layoffs -- many in high-paying corporate executive jobs -- with no imminent prospect of new development. "That's a lot of disposable income gone," said Jay Clemens, president of Tulsa's chamber of commerce. "Not to mention property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes."
Most critically, the Williams Cos. -- the only Fortune 500 energy conglomerate based here -- and its telecommunications spinoff, WilTel -- have been struggling for survival. The companies' viability has huge ramifications for a city that has relied heavily on them for tax revenue and philanthropic largess. In 2000, Williams contributed $7.6 million to the state for various charities, education and the arts. "The psyche of Williams being in trouble has a terrible impact here," said Mickey Thompson, senior vice president for economic development for the chamber of commerce.
In addition, many of the other lost jobs have been in aviation and telecommunications -- the very industries to which Tulsa turned. VarTec Telecom Inc. -- the company known for its "10-10" long-distance calling service -- laid off 1,000 people in Tulsa, and an additional 330 have been let go by WorldCom. American Airlines, Tulsa's largest corporate employer, cut 1,000 jobs. (Some jobs were later reinstated.)
All of this has taken its toll. A city of 390,000, Tulsa boasts its own opera, ballet and philharmonic orchestra, but the orchestra is all but bankrupt. High-end houses sit empty as the residential real estate market stagnates. The restaurant business is flat, and hotel occupancy is down about 13 percent. More than 150 city positions have been eliminated, and city employees have been forced to accept seven furlough days a year to save money. Lawsuits have been filed over that.
"It is not a good picture," said Pat Connelly, Tulsa's budget manager. Connelly said that because of the mounting woes in Tulsa's telecommunications industries, the city has been particularly "clobbered" by a $6 million loss in taxes collected on goods purchased out of state for use in Tulsa -- mostly high-tech equipment.
"That's money that will not come back," said Connelly. "We have to find new sources."
Most troubling to a community that has long depended on private donors to make up any shortfalls is the specter that private sources of funding are hurting. Foundations and corporations that were once so willing to fill the gap are now picking their spots very carefully -- or not giving at all.
Over the next two years, social service funding is expected to decrease about 14 percent -- putting further demands on limited private sources. Family and Children's Services, probably the highest-profile social service agency in town, noticed a sharp increase in families requesting Christmas assistance, far exceeding the number of individuals willing to help -- both attributable to the economy.
"It's an extraordinarily bleak picture," said Steven Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, an anti-poverty organization that oversees a multitude of social services here. "The cuts are already starting to squeeze the agencies . . . causing intense competition for private funding at a time when corporate giving is down and private portfolios are suffering."
"We are down 20 percent -- that's quite a lot of money," said attorney Don Marlar, a trustee of the Grace and Franklin Bernsen Foundation, a generous benefactor of Tulsa social services. "We are keeping our past commitments on challenge grants, but if they are all met, we will have nothing to give next year."
This is a hard pill to swallow for a city in the middle of the country, built by the affluence of the oil industry and its illustrious and generous barons. In few places were oil's excitement and success greater than in Oklahoma, for decades affording the state a feeling of optimism and prosperity.
Early oil discoveries were made on Indian lands in the late 1800s. By 1905, a major oil field was found outside of Tulsa, the bountiful Glenn Pool. Oklahoma became the destination of risk-takers and fortune-seekers who turned Tulsa into an oasis of art-deco high rises and the high life.
Oil has always been subject to the roller coaster of supply and demand, and the city's fortunes fluctuated accordingly. But by the 1980s, plummeting prices finally forced Tulsa to face up to the future -- and it wasn't solely oil. City leaders successfully attracted businesses to a city that had much to offer in southern charm, many churches and a lot of residual oil money to support cultural enrichment, hospitals and one of the best golf courses in the nation at Southern Hill Country Club.
It was once an easy sell, but the chamber's Thompson said new business development has been at a virtual standstill. Still, he said that today he spends all his time trying to encourage existing companies to expand and courting new businesses to compensate for the losses. "A lot of people are looking, but no one is ready to pull the trigger on a deal," said Thompson, who said he has fielded more than 700 inquiries this year.
Asked what he tells prospective businesses that inquire about the area's hurting school districts, a topic that dominates the daily news, he said, "I just try to keep them real busy while they're here so they don't have time to read the newspaper."
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Margaret Smith contributed to this report.