NORMAN, Okla. — On her son’s high school graduation day, Amy Hardesty hid in her bedroom.
One room over, family from out-of-town celebrated the end of her youngest son’s senior year of high school. They congratulated Brent, Amy’s husband, on his soon-to-be empty nest.
“And I’m thinking, ‘You don’t know how empty,’” he said.
That’s because Amy Hardesty was on a virtual interview for a kindergarten teaching job in Frisco ISD, about 175 miles away. The couple hadn’t told most of their friends or their family of their plan. The secret weighed on them as if they were holding their breath underwater.
Amy Hardesty accepted the job that afternoon, knowing her husband, the senior pastor at Norman Community Church of the Nazarene, would stay behind in Oklahoma to lead his congregation.
Months earlier, she had walked out of school with her colleagues and flooded the state Capitol, putting herself in the center of a debate on teacher pay. Teachers lobbied Oklahoma lawmakers to fix their lagging salaries — a protest that gained national attention and came up short of its goals.
With two sons in college, and thousands of dollars in tuition bills to help pay, her salary in Oklahoma, even with a raise coming, wouldn’t cut it anymore. The promise of about $20,000 more a year south of the Red River was too much to pass up.
“I couldn’t believe it myself — that I was willing to leave my husband all week,” Amy Hardesty said, wiping tears. “It was scary.”
Now, Amy Hardesty, 49, ends her days telling her husband goodnight and “I love you” through a computer screen. She falls asleep during the week under a floral comforter in a retired couple’s Frisco guest room that she rents.
And on Friday afternoons, she makes the more than two-hour drive north across the border to Norman.
For now, this is the price she pays to be a teacher and support a family.
Norman was Hardesty’s community. She taught in the public school district for 13 years — first at her neighborhood Jefferson Elementary, which her sons attended, and then Truman Primary School.
The school — located in a Norman neighborhood of two-story homes where former University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops once lived — was relatively new, opening less than a decade ago. Classrooms were outfitted with interactive whiteboards and teachers were given Macbooks. Parents were involved in their kids’ schools. The community supported public education, passing bond measures for renovations, new school buildings and technology upgrades.
Hardesty was comfortable there. She didn’t feel pressure to leave.
But on an overcast and frigid April morning this year, Hardesty made her way toward the main stage outside the state Capitol, where a woman yelled into a megaphone for teachers to fight for their students.
Hardesty searched for her own students — the 5-year-olds she lovingly calls “friends” when she speaks to them in class and the ones she reminds to “sit on their pockets” when she reads them stories.
She spotted two in the crowd and wrapped her arms around their shoulders. The kids in beanies and winter coats held a sign that read: “Students stand with teachers.”
Hardesty was among tens of thousands of teachers to rally at the Capitol for more funding and better pay for educators, who were among the lowest paid in the country. And unlike at Hardesty’s school, other teachers complained of overcrowded classrooms, old worn-out books and broken desk chairs. Nearly 20 percent of school districts had gone to a four-day school week because of budget constraints.
“I believed in what we were fighting for,” she said.
Before the protests, lawmakers approved more than $400 million in new taxes for education, including an average $6,000 raise for teachers. But the teachers said it wasn’t enough to stop the march. And many were uncertain the funding will continue beyond this year.
“There is a lack of trust with the Legislature at this point,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “It’s going to take more than one year to get us back to right with the Legislature, and they have to prove that it’s more than just a one-year thing.”
The association’s decision to end the walkout after nine days, frustrated some educators, some of whom pulled or threatened to yank their membership. Teachers flocked to neighboring states for jobs or left the profession altogether.
The day the walkout ended, “a dream died,” Brent Hardesty said months later.
Hardesty isn’t the first Oklahoman to head to Texas for a bigger paycheck. The state even lost its 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan and his wife to Lewisville ISD.
A national board-certified teacher with almost two decades of experience, Hardesty was one of 17 Oklahoma teachers Frisco ISD hired this school year. Frisco, with its proximity to Oklahoma, routinely recruits teachers from the state’s universities. Fort Worth ISD also advertised its higher salaries on Oklahoma billboards.
Hardesty knew Frisco ISD’s esteemed reputation. The fast-growing and ethnically diverse school district offers teachers with bachelor degrees starting salaries of $53,000. As a veteran teacher, Hardesty’s salary totals more than $60,000, compared to the approximate $41,000 she made her final year in Norman. The district added about 800 new teachers this year.
“A lot of people consider us a destination district,” said Anna Koenig, human resources director at the district.
Hardesty also had some connections to the area. One of her college best friend lives there, and her brother is nearby in Prosper. Another Truman Primary teacher also left Norman last school year for a job at Frisco ISD to be closer to her family.
One of the Hardesty boys was already a football quarterback at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., and another son was going away to Colorado Christian University. Hardesty and her husband wanted to help the two stay out of crushing debt. They had athletic and some academic scholarships, but each month, Brent spends more than $2,000 on college costs — most of it for his youngest son’s tuition in Colorado.
“I thought if, for a little time I could sacrifice, I could help him not have so many loans,” Amy Hardesty said.
Inside Fisher Elementary School in Frisco ISD, Hardesty forgets she’s teaching in a different state.
Here, she’s back in her element. The kids are the same age. The routine is similar. She even has a colorful rug with all the letters of the alphabet — much like the one that covered her classroom floor in Norman.
On the first day of school, students race to their spots on the patterned rug, sitting one-to-a-letter as Hardesty pulls out a well-worn book she used in Oklahoma. Titled Welcome to Kindergarten, the pages have been turned so many times some are beginning to fall out.
“Did you know that this year you’re going to learn to read?” Hardesty asks the class of wide-eyed, squirming 5-year-olds dressed in new clothes — some with the price tags still attached.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Hardesty continues. “Learning to read is my favorite.”
Brent Hardesty recently made the drive to Texas himself to see Amy Hardesty’s new class and students. It was his first time in Frisco since Amy Hardesty began her new job.
He brought flowers for his wife and sat cross-legged on the alphabet rug with the students. He asked them their names. He wanted to know what they loved most about kindergarten.
“And when it was my turn, I said my favorite thing I love about kindergarten is your teacher,” he said.
The kids giggled.
Most of Brent Hardesty’s nights back in Norman are quiet — “really quiet,” he said while sitting in his recliner. He has started inviting guys from church to their home to watch Monday Night Football.
The house used to be bustling when Amy and the boys were there. On Friday nights, they went to football games. A group of high-school boys filled the home for Saturday-morning breakfasts.
“I can’t sit here without remembering boys. And not just my two, but all the boys that went with them,” he said.
All the driving between Oklahoma and Texas worries Amy Hardesty’s parents.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re almost 50,” Hardesty said. “Your parents are still your parents.”
But she sometimes teases them, saying they gave her the idea to cross state lines for a job.
After Hardesty married, her parents, Conrad and Patricia Herman, left Texas to teach in Alaska. They were swayed by higher pay — which roughly doubled their salaries at the time — and the lower-stakes standardized testing.
“I was hesitant about her doing this,” Conrad Herman said. “But she reminded me that we took off and went to Alaska.”
Hardesty thought about her parents during a recent drive back to Norman for the weekend, a tire blew out on an 18-wheeler in the lane ahead. Chunks of torn tire bounced down Interstate 35. The smell of burnt rubber filled Hardesty’s red Nissan Rogue as she crinkled her nose. She knew that would worry her mother.
But Hardesty doesn’t mind the time on the road, which she spends with audio books, usually Christian ones, or on phone calls to catch up with friends.
“Hey girl, whatcha doing?” Hardesty said, answering one call from a college friend. “Yeah, I’m driving back.”
Joe Siano, former Norman Public Schools superintendent and associate executive director for the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, hopes one day it will make financial sense for teachers like Hardesty, who left for jobs elsewhere, to return home.
“If they see a plan in place and a long-term commitment, I believe they are more apt to recommit to Oklahoma education,” he said.
Currently, Oklahoma leaders are just trying to stop the bleeding as teachers leave. The state’s Board of Education on Thursday approved more than 400 additional emergency teacher certifications, bringing the total to more than 2,500 since June.
Hardesty didn’t completely escape education politics by heading to Texas. In November, Frisco voters will decide whether to approve a tax-ratification election that would partly be used to increase teachers’ salaries and health premium contributions. Currently, the district says its salaries are not competitive enough in booming North Texas. The growing district has also proposed a $691 million bond measure to build new schools, renovate old facilities and add security measures.
The district has tightened its spending, hiked fees and delayed new school openings over the last couple years after voters shot down a 13-cent property tax-rate hike to fund operations in August 2016.
Other districts have called similar elections, blaming a state education finance system that they say has left school districts at the mercy of overburdened local taxpayers.
Almost three hours after she left Frisco on a recent Friday, Amy Hardesty makes a right into her neighborhood and pulls into the driveway. The garage door that leads to their one-story, red-brick home is open. Brent’s truck is parked outside.
Amy Hardesty hoists a paisley duffel from the backseat and drags it through the backdoor. Brent has lit a candle. Its warm, fruity smell wafts the space.
Some days, she heads straight for the bath. Later, she’ll have a week’s worth of laundry to do and a few dishes to scrub.
But on this night, she heads first for the half-eaten pan of brownies in the kitchen, where several months earlier out-of-town relatives had stood when her teaching job in Frisco was only an idea. The sweets had been sitting out since Brent’s Monday Night Football gathering.
Amy Hardesty lifts the lid, scooping a chocolate square from the pan. She takes a bite and nods to Brent. “Pretty good,” she said.
She’s home, for now.