Budget & Tax , Education

Jay Chilton | August 21, 2017

Surplus funds at Statewide Virtual Charter School Board discussed

Jay Chilton

OKLAHOMA CITY — Possible uses for $2.7 million in surplus funds are under consideration by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board (SVCSB), the body which oversees the operation of Oklahoma’s statewide virtual charter schools.

According to the SVCSB website, Oklahoma provides five school options delivering instruction online. Those options include four virtual charter schools (Epic Charter School, Insight School of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Connections Academy, and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy) as well as supplemental online courses available to students in local public school districts.

Board members discussed the surplus during a special meeting on Aug. 15. Chairman Mathew Hamrick said that the state’s budget challenges prompted the discussion.

“I asked for this item to be placed on the agenda,” Hamrick said, “because … we’re looking at a great possibility of cuts to all agencies and I’m especially concerned with what’s going to happen on the education side. We do have surplus funds, well beyond what we have budgeted for this year.

“I would like for us to take some time to have a serious discussion about what we may be able to do with some of those funds for the schools and students.”

Hamrick told CIJ that the surplus funds were the unbudgeted remainder of the board’s oversight fee which diverts approximately three percent of the money appropriated by the legislature for the operation of the state’s virtual charter schools. Oklahoma statute provides for the fee to be collected and used to facilitate the operation of the board.

Hamrick told the board that after conversations with several lawmakers, he believes the funds would not be safe from confiscation if the legislature holds a special session this fall.

“I would much rather see those (funds) go toward the education of the teachers that are serving our students,” he said.

Former Chairman John Harrington agreed with Hamrick, saying “my hope and goal is that that’s where they would end up. In the past there’s been some discussion designating these funds as sort of an emergency fund, in essence, to protect them.”

SVSCB executive director Dr. Rebecca Wilkinson said that the funds don’t meet the requirements to be placed into a “special, protected account.”

“In order to be able to do scholarships (with the surplus funds) we would need to get that into statute,” Wilkinson said in response to a suggested use for the money. “Even the Regents for Higher Education had to place it in statute. They didn’t have the ability to do scholarships. Not right now, but somewhere down the road we could give scholarships to students in virtual charter schools.”

Board members Pam Vreeland and Debbie Long asked about possible uses for the funds. Long asked for an opinion on the parameters for the board to act on its own authority to determine how the money is spent. Their questions have no clear answers, members were told.

“I think it’s responsible to have the funds available to cover our entire budget,” Hamrick said. “That being said, we’ve not even spent our entire budget in the last few years. I also think it’s responsible to maintain an emergency (fund) above and beyond that, say 25 percent.”

Harrington added, “If there are draconian cuts that come again, next year or something, and (the virtual schools) are not able to meet their budgets, is there a resource available? They’ve got adequate funds today to cover their existing budget.

“I would rather have those funds available to intercede at a time (of financial difficulty) that if there is a shortfall, we can help bridge that shortfall. Which, to me, is a very different scenario than, sort of, just cutting checks.”

Hamrick said lawmakers have designs on surplus funds held by state agencies.

“The money is on (the legislature’s) radar,” he said, “and it’s just going to get put back into the general fund and we don’t necessarily have a way to protect those funds.”

Several suggestions were made by board members for the use of the money. Suggestions included virtual school teacher bonuses, targeted usage grants to the schools, returning it back to the general fund, and giving it to the State Department of Education for distribution to traditional schools.

“I think it’s important to remember where these funds came from,” Hamrick said. “This was not the board’s money to start with; it was appropriated dollars that were funded through the state, meant for per-pupil spending on education. The statute authorized us to collect a certain percentage in order to make the board function. I don’t believe that purpose was meant to apply those funds somewhere else. It was meant to meet the minimum requirements (to operate the board) and process them through to the schools in order to aid those students going through virtual charter schools.”

Following the meeting, Hamrick told CIJ that the board has not been wasteful or profligate.

“I think that the board has consistently been responsible with the money it’s been given care of,” he said. “It’s tried to save as much money as possible and operate on as tight a budget as it could. Our responsibility is not to grow government spending but to merely ensure that the needs of the schools are provided for. In that (effort), the board has tried to ensure that they don’t spend any extra money.

“I believe a symptom exists within government, across the board, in which agencies that have chosen to do the most good with the least resources possible, have always been punished by finding themselves with less resources the next year rather than rewarding that frugality.”

CIJ asked Hamrick his opinion on what should happen to the surplus funds.

“I believe it’s in the board’s purview to say, those moneys were not needed by the board and should be returned back to the schools, because it was not necessarily the board’s money to begin with. It’s going back to its original purpose.”

The board voted to table the matter for now and investigate the issue further. Some of the options include asking counsel to explore the legal ramifications, discussing the issue with the superintendents of the virtual schools to assess their needs, and talking with Natalie Shirley, who is state Secretary of Education and Workforce Development. Shirley is the board’s liaison to the executive branch.

Jay Chilton

Independent Journalist

Jay Chilton is a multiple-award-winning photojournalist including the Oklahoma Press Association’s Photo of the Year in 2013. His previous service as an intelligence operative for the U.S. Army, retail and commercial sales director, oil-field operator and entrepreneur in three different countries on two continents and across the U.S. lends a wide experience and context helping him produce well-rounded and complete stories. Jay’s passion is telling stories. He strives to place the reader in the seat, at the event, or on the sideline allowing the reader to experience an event through his reporting. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma with a minor in photographic arts. Jay and his wife live in Midwest City with three dogs and innumerable koi enjoying frequent visits from their children.

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