Lately, it seems hardly a day goes by without another district official announcing how they will absorb the mid-year cuts our legislature has made to education funding. Many districts post these letters on social media, and as I scroll through the comments, I see responses spanning the whole spectrum of support and understanding to frustration and anger. School officials, particularly superintendents and financial officers, are well-versed in the nuances of financing public education. As many superintendents are faced with the challenge of this year’s shortfall while simultaneously bracing for even steeper cuts to next year’s budget, I think it is important for us to remember a few things about school finance.
- School funding comes from a variety of sources for specific purposes.
School districts are funded through local and state taxes, as well as federal funds like Title I for schools that qualify. Each of those funding sources has rules for how and where the money can be spent. Every year, the legislature sets a budget for the state, which includes how much money will be allocated to common education (K-12) and higher education. A number of factors contribute to the amount of funding each individual district receives from the state including the number and age of students enrolled, and how much each district receives from local tax revenue. The formula is apparently so complicated that even state officials couldn’t get it right for the last twenty years. But the point is, some districts with lower property value and local taxes are more dependent upon state funding. It is state funding to education that has fallen off in recent years, and it is state funding that has been cut over 100million so far this year. Districts hit hardest by these cuts are the ones that rely heavily on state funding, which is why some are facing more drastic cost-saving measures than others. State funding is what primarily pays staff salaries and benefits. This is why for some districts, cuts to staffing are the only way to absorb the funding shortfall.
- Money from bond issues cannot be used to make up the shortfall.
School districts in Oklahoma must finance their own building projects. This means each district must put a bond issue before the people for a vote. A bond issue stipulates exactly how much money a district will collect through property taxes that will pay back a bond (sort of like a loan) for building projects. These projects are carefully outlined in each bond election so people know exactly what they are getting for the money. In addition, bond issues must pass with a supermajority (at least 60%), and many pass with upwards of 70%. Bond issues CANNOT be used to fund salaries. They may fund building projects, including maintenance, repairs, renovations, or expansions to existing structures. They may fund technology purchases. Occasionally, a special bond issue may fund transportation, like new buses or other district vehicles. In other words, the funding crisis we are currently experiencing was not created by expenditures for new facilities in the district. Local taxpayers and stakeholders voted for these projects, and the money from bond issues can only be used for those purposes.
- Oklahoma’s school administration costs are relatively low.
We keep hearing the argument that administrative positions are a particular drain on our funding. The numbers simply don’t support that. I can’t speak for all districts, but I know officials in several. They are absorbing cuts where they can, especially in central offices. In my district, the third highest position in central administration is retiring. Administration announced almost immediately that the position would not be filled to help alleviate budget cuts. Several other “non-instructional” positions are going unfilled in order to protect teaching positions, which in turn, protects students. Let’s not forget that education funding in Oklahoma has endured the steepest cuts in the country over the course of several years. Many administration positions have been cut through attrition in years past in order to protect classrooms and students. In some places, central offices are already trimmed to the bone. We need some administrators. Some we need thanks to unfunded mandates that have increased the paperwork and “red tape”. Due to the vast increase in testing and high stakes attached, many districts must hire employees to coordinate all the exams, and ensure we are complying with the loooooooooong list of rules that accompanies administering standardized tests. Other funding, like federal Title I, pays for specific administrative positions, and therefore, isn’t contributing to a district’s shortfall. Some administrators we need because they do the business of operating the district so we educators can do what we do best: teach the kids!
4. While we have increased enrollment by 50,000 students, STATE FUNDING to education is lower than it was 8 years ago.
Some legislators continue touting the half-truth, “public schools have more money than ever before.” You have to combine bond money (which the people approved), sinking fund, federal funds (like Title I), even money from booster clubs and activity accounts (remember that wrapping paper you bought from the band?) in order to come close to the number Speaker Hickman reports. Money from the state primarily funds salaries, health benefits, and retirement. That is why districts are being forced to eliminate staff in order to make up the shortfall. Fact: Oklahoma was 44th in per pupil spending in 2013. We have continued to usher in the steepest cuts to education by far in the country since then. One can assume at best, we have maintained our position at 44, but more likely, we have fallen. Fact: Oklahoma teachers haven’t had a raise since 2008, not even cost-of-living. Fact: Even when including health benefits and teacher retirement, Oklahoma ranks the lowest in our region and 49th in the nation for teacher pay. South Dakota ended their most recent legislative session raising teacher pay, so we’re probably soon to be 50th.
I signed up to be a teacher. I take care of administrating and funding the program I run. I am not nor do I intend to become an “expert” in school finance. But I believe, as we dive deeper into our budget crisis, we would all do well to continue educating ourselves about how school funding works. It is important we hold accountable the people who are really responsible for this mess (spoiler alert: it isn’t your superintendent). Primaries in June. General election in November. That’s all I’m going to say about that for now.
Disclaimer: forgive my nostalgia–couldn’t resist on this one: