Ray Carter | October 25, 2019

School budget request approved despite concerns

Ray Carter

The State Board of Education has approved a budget for K-12 public schools that requests an additional $219 million, but board members expressed concern the proposal misleads by omission and fails to provide a carefully considered long-range plan for Oklahoma schools.

Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma Department of Education, told board members the $3.29 billion state-appropriation request for public schools was not designed with state government’s financial condition in mind.

“We fully understand that the request we have before you today is no small ask,” Thompson said. “However, we believe that these are the most pressing needs that we have for districts today. In fact, many of these items we have requested for increases year after year after year. And we are not directed to request a budget that neatly fits into our economic status as a state. We are directed to present a budget that presents the needs of districts. We feel like we have done that today.”

Department officials said the budget proposal would increase the state’s appropriated per-pupil funding from $3,173 to $3,275  per student with the latter figure matching the per-pupil funding achieved in 2009, before a series of state and national recessions forced spending lower. 

However, department officials admitted the per-pupil figures they cited for the past two state budget years fail to account for hundreds of millions in state funding provided for teacher pay raises. Over the last two years, the average teacher has seen pay jump by more than $7,000.

“You will see here in the last two years that the amounts that were appropriated for pay raises were not included in these calculations,” Thompson said. “That’s because those items were specifically earmarked for teacher pay and could not be used on other items by school districts.”

That omission, and the apples-to-oranges comparison that results from it, disturbed several board members.

“It’s not fully accurate, right, because the teacher funding did go through the formula,” said board member Jennifer Monies. “And so, when looking at this, you’re taking out some formula dollars.”

“That’s why there’s a footnote,” Thompson said.

Several board members questioned if the 2009 comparison makes sense without providing greater context to the public, but State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister defended the comparison.

“We haven’t even asked for additional funds,” Hofmeister said. “We’re asking for and getting to the 2009 numbers.”

“Coming up with that number, you’re taking out the additional teacher pay,” said board member Kurt Bollenbach. “I still struggle with that.”

He asked if there are non-financial data points that would make the 2009 contrast a better gauge.

“Our 2009 funding, did that correlate to the highest academic achievement in our state as well?” Bollenbach asked.

“I don’t know,” Hofmeister said. “I don’t  know back to 2009 what was going on back then.”

She said state testing results today are more accurate than the proficiency rates used in 2009, and the state’s academic standards have also changed, so an apples-to-apples comparison on academic results is not possible.

Hofmeister added, “Our children have much deeper needs than they did in 2009. That is a fact.”

The proposed FY21 Department of Education budget proposal included $19.1 million for year one of a three-year program that will provide grants to encourage schools to hire more counselors, a proposal that would increase the share of school funding spent outside the classroom. Hofmeister and department officials indicated the counselor initiative will be a major focus of the budget plan.

To reach the nationally recommended ratio of 250 students for every one school counselor, department officials said Oklahoma schools will need to hire another 1,100 counselors. However, a budget overview indicates many of those positions could be filled by people already working in the school system, noting 880 individuals who are licensed school counselors are now employed by state school districts in other positions, including 526 licensed counselors who are working as classroom teachers.

However, that raised concern from Bollenbach, who questioned if shifting people out of the classroom and into counseling positions would simply create “holes all over the state with core classroom teachers” that would then “exacerbate” the problem of overreliance on emergency certified teachers.

Following an average $6,100 teacher pay raise in the 2018 session, the number of teachers employed by state schools increased by around 1,100. But the number of emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma increased by more than 1,000 during that time, meaning Oklahoma schools would have experienced almost no increase in the teacher workforce had it not been for emergency certified teachers, despite the pay raise.

And there may be a substantial exodus of veteran teachers in a few years, thanks in part to the large pay raises. Because retirement benefits are tied to the last three years of income, passage of teacher pay raises has incentivized many veteran teachers to remain in the classroom a few years longer in order to boost their retirement benefits, Thompson said.

“We have a cliff coming, kind of, in three years down the road from the teacher pay raise,” Thompson said.

Hofmeister said hiring more counselors will help with teacher retention.

“We’ve got to keep those teachers. In order to keep them, we need counselors,” Hofmeister said. “Because they have children that have great need, and they need the support to come alongside and help support them in classroom management, in coaching them.”

Board member Estela Hernandez noted the board had relatively little time to review the budget request, and were being asked to approve it almost immediately without in-depth review.

“As is, I don’t feel comfortable voting on this,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez indicated her conversations with teachers suggest other needs should perhaps be a greater priority than what is provided by the Department of Education’s proposed budget.

“When you talk to the teachers in the classroom, they say, ‘I need help. We need more teachers,’” Hernandez said. “You talk to Oklahoma City, Putnam City, and others, those teachers are saying, ‘We need more teachers. I have 35 students in a classroom. That should not be the case.’ And so I feel that it is up to this body to be intentional about teacher recruitment.”

She suggested the board should also review how the spending decisions of recent years have impacted, or not, academic outcomes in Oklahoma schools.

“It’s really having more of the measurements of what we’ve put in, let’s say, in the last year or the last two years,” Hernandez said. “Those amounts, what are the measurements? What were the outcomes?”

Board member William Flanagan noted the budget increase far outpaces student growth.

“Our student growth, projected, is less than 1 percent,” Flanagan said. “So our student growth is not a real large number, and our expenditure, our planned expenditure here, compared to what was actual the previous year, is 7.13 percent.”

“That’s a big increase on probably what is one of the, or close to the largest state budgets,” Bollenbach agreed.

“We’ve been in a hole,” Hofmeister responded. “That’s why 7 percent sounds like it’s a disconnect from the 1 percent that we’re projecting in student growth, but it’s actually that our kids have been doing without.”

Bollenbach also worried the state has set academic goals for future years, but the budget process does not spell out a financial path to reach those goals over the same time period.

“If I was reviewing this in my business, number one is I need to know what’s our total cost to get to the goals in 2025?” Bollenbach said. “And what are those annual increases that we’re going to need to make?”

Despite the concerns raised by board members, the group ultimately approved the budget request with four members voting in support, while Bollenbach and Hernandez abstained. A seventh board member, Brian Bobek, was not present.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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