Legislation lets teachers compete with turf

April 23, 2018

Trent England

Last Friday, Jonathan Small wrote about school districts that seem more interested in buying new turf than investing in textbooks or classroom supplies. Just look at these Oklahoma schools with college-like athletic facilities and indoor waterfalls. Of course, the excuse given by superintendents and school boards is that some funds are restricted—they can only be used for buildings.

It is true that some education funds are restricted to capital expenses, like buildings (although Oklahoma Watch exposed how Catoosa used both restricted and unrestricted funds to build a $1.5 million press box). But why should it be easier to buy turf instead of textbooks? Why should the law favor putting a cafe in the library instead of paying the librarian, or maybe an in-demand physics teacher, more?

Senate Joint Resolution 70 would let Oklahomans vote on whether to break down one of these funding silos. According to the bill summary, under current law “a school district can levy up to five mills for a building fund.” If SJR 70 is adopted, a local school board would have the flexibility to use those funds either for buildings or “for expenses associated with the general operations of a school district.” In other words, money already available to school districts for buildings would also be available for teacher pay, textbooks, classroom supplies, or whatever that district needs most.

It is important to note that this would not allow school districts to spend bond funds—borrowed dollars—on operations. Debt financing through bonds is something that school districts and other government entities are allowed to do under a host of legal restrictions. When school districts issue bonds, they pay for them with property tax dollars. But school districts also use property tax dollars like other revenues, spending them directly as a part of their annual budgets, which is what SJR 70 is about.

As I wrote earlier this year in the Tulsa World, “The question here is simple.”

What is more important, teachers or buildings? Another question is whether we trust local school boards and voters to set the right priorities if given real choices. Then again, the reason for local control over district budgets is that not every community is the same, and budgeting requires tradeoffs. Sometimes there is no single, obvious, one-size-fits-all answer. In that case, it makes sense to break down the funding silos and let local school districts have more power, including power to pay teachers more.