Ardmore joins school funding fight, lawmakers propose grant program to equalize funding

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Ardmore City Schools is the latest school district to join the legal challenge against the Oklahoma State Board of Education over changes to how public and charter schools are funded. The Tuesday vote by the Ardmore Board of Education came the same day state lawmakers signaled a potential legislative solution to the contentious and allegedly unconstitutional settlement. 

Harry Spring prepares to be sworn in for his second term on the Ardmore City Schools Board of Education Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Board members later voted to approve legal action against the State Board of Education for approving a lawsuit settlement that could divert local revenues toward charter schools.

Multiple school districts in Carter County have already approved legal action against a March 25 vote by the State Board of Education to settle a lawsuit brought by the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association in 2017. School boards in Dickson, Lone Grove and Wilson also approved similar actions earlier this month to challenge the state board’s decision. 

More:State education board challenged by local school districts

The 2017 lawsuit stems from the claim that charter schools are entitled to local revenues that fund traditional public schools. The settlement approved by the State Board of Education last month allows local revenues, like property and motor vehicle taxes, to be directed to charter schools. 

Traditional public schools argue that it will reduce funding for bring-and-mortar structures not used by virtual charter schools, while the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association argued in its original court filing that funding mechanisms between traditional public schools and charter schools were not equitable. 

Ardmore City Schools Superintendent Kim Holland told his board members on Tuesday evening that recent visits with legal counsel and counterparts from other districts suggested that Ardmore schools should join over 100 other districts in the legal challenge. 

“We, as a community...of superintendents and school boards believe that if we don’t take some sort of action, they’ll just keep going further and further,” said Holland.  

“That’s why I’m advocating joining with all these other school districts and taking some sort of action against a state school board that doesn’t seem to be listening,” he said. 

Before the vote, board member Steve Oliver asked Holland for an estimated cost to join the challenge. Holland said that because so many districts are joining the challenge, lawyers expect the costs to be less than $5,000. 

More:Federal relief funds no simple fix for Ardmore City Schools budget woes

Hours before the Ardmore school board vote, multiple state lawmakers released a joint statement about proposed legislation to address funding equalization and the contentious March 25 vote by the Oklahoma State Board of Education. The five representatives and two senators say the Redbud School Funding Act would provide grants to schools in areas of low property values to help offset potential funding shortfalls. 

“This bill fixes funding disparities and ends the uncertainty the (State) Board of Education's legal settlement created,” read the statement from lawmakers led by Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow.  

“While the board’s decision benefited charter schools at the expense of traditional schools, this bill benefits all schools in a constitutional, equitable manner we expect will find broad support.” 

Senate Bill 229, which was recently amended to include the Redbud School Funding Act, is expected to be heard by the Oklahoma House of Representatives this week. Lawmakers supporting the bill say it will reverse the state board’s decision that allows charter schools to receive local tax dollars and instead provide grants to eligible schools regardless of whether it is traditional, charter or virtual. 

“[C]harter schools are not alone in this funding disparity. Oklahoma’s school funding formula does a great job of providing equity in operating dollars, but it does not provide equity in local resources,” read Tuesday’s statement. 

The statement uses school districts in Adair and Garvin counties as an example of the wide funding disparities between traditional public school districts. Maryetta schools, with about 641 students, receive about $5,800 per mill of property taxes levied on local residents. By comparison, Wynnewood schools, with 708 students, receive over $86,000 per mill of property taxes.

The disparity between the two districts’ property tax revenues means spending per pupil per mill ranges between $9 and $122, according to lawmakers. Public charter schools have not received local property tax revenues but, if the state board of education’s decision stands, would become entitled to a portion of that revenue based on how many students in the district attend a state charter school. 

Ardmore City Schools Finance Director Kelly Shannon said the Oklahoma State Department of Education has not provided districts with estimates of how the March 25 decision would impact Ardmore school funding.