Friday’s Legislative Affairs Luncheon gave the public a chance to ask area superintendents questions about education funding, teacher pay, the challenges they face and the impending teacher walkout.
Many districts that planned to participate in the walkout have changed course with the passage of House Bill 1010, which provides some funding for teacher and support staff pay raises. The attending superintendents expressed gratitude for the bill’s passing, but acknowledged that the state has a long road ahead of them before schools can recover from a decade of deep cuts.
Ardmore City Schools Assistant Superintendent Jill Day said the district may change its plans to walk out, but will still send delegates to the Capitol throughout the week.
“This is something our teachers have needed for a long time,” Day said. “We are very concerned, still, about making sure the funding is solid and making sure it’s something that’s going to last.”
Springer Schools Superintendent Cynthia Hunter said her district would still be closed on Monday, giving teachers a chance to go to the Capitol.
“Our teachers still have questions about the funding, the revenue and what’s going to happen with that,” Hunter said.
Lone Grove Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller said her district is sticking to its original plan, using weather makeup days as advocacy days for teachers on April 2 and 3.
“We did vote to send delegates each day… we feel like it’s necessary to visit with legislators and let our voices be heard,” Miller said.
The superintendents answered audience questions during the luncheon, ranging from concerns about the teacher shortage and class sizes to questions about how districts manage their funds.
Miller said the funding provided in the bill is a great first step, but wouldn’t cover districts’ needs in the long run. She cited outdated textbooks and curriculum as two pressing issues that will take additional funding sources to fix.
Hunter said Springer is unique, as the smaller district relies on local funding completely. Gross production tax will benefit the district, but state aid will not. She said property tax protests can interfere with or delay school funding in her district.
“That being said, we will probably need to find a way to provide our own teacher pay raises because that’s mandated,” Hunter said.
David Powell said for Southern Tech, funding is slightly different. Most of the center’s funding comes from local property taxes.
“We are hopeful that it’s enough, we’ll have to take things in bits and pieces, but we are thankful for what we are getting,” Day said.
An audience member asked the panel if pay raises would attract more teachers to the state.
Day said the increased pay would give teachers who are close to retirement an incentive to stay in the classroom for a few more years. She added that currently at job fairs, Oklahoma schools couldn’t compete with districts in other states.
“I’m hoping that getting us up on the regional average will help us attract (teachers),” Day said.
In response to an audience question about how districts manage their funds, Hunter said people sometimes perceive schools’ spending as wasteful.
“If you don’t know the nuts and bolts of what school finance is it can appear that way,” Hunter said. “As far as the future goes, I think (we need to establish) an open line of communication with our legislators… year-round.”
Day said educating parents about school finance and keeping them informed could help them understand the districts’ positions. She gave Ardmore City Schools’ upcoming bond issue as an example of an issue that’s often misunderstood.
“I’ve had so many people make comments,” Day said. “ ‘You want to build a performing arts center when you can’t even pay your teachers?’ Well, unfortunately, those are two different pockets of money. We can’t use bonds to pay teachers.”
Day said Oklahoma administrators have had no choice but to learn how to manage their funding carefully in the face of so many cuts.
“Every year, we’re holding our breath,” Day said. “Are we going to have to cut teachers? Are we going to have to cut positions? How much is our budget going to decrease? I don’t think any of us will take what we’re getting now and just go crazy with the money. We just can’t.”
Powell said he thought the problem may lie in the state constitution’s limitations on general bonds and the formula the state uses to determine funding for individual schools, adding that the system may need to be updated.
“It’s different in every state and there’s a balancing act to it,” Powell said. “It’s something to ponder. It’s a big hairy mess, but it hasn’t been done in a long, long time.”
Hunter said in Springer, class sizes haven’t been as much of an issue. Day said for Ardmore, a 4A school, it’s a different story. She said the district’s biggest first grade class last year had 26 students.
“We’ve had algebra and chemistry classes with 30-35 in them, and that’s tough, especially in lab classes” Day said. “And maybe it’s because I’m an elementary person at heart, but what really bothers me is seeing 30 first graders in a class.”
The panel answered questions about revenue sources other than state funding or help like grants, federal aid or community volunteers.
“There are a lot of ways to stretch dollars about as far as you can, but there are rules and regulations that prevent us from doing many things,” Miller said. “Our hands are tied in many situations, especially with federal funding. There are a lot of strings attached.”
Those strings include documentation and extra paperwork that add to the administrations’ workload. A workload that already takes up large chunks of employees’ days and usually follows them home on weekends.
“The several opportunities for more federal funding I’ve had meant I would have to hire another person to do the mountains of paperwork to make them happy,” Powell said. “Sometimes it will cost you more money than you’re getting from them. It’s really that bad.”