The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Oklahoma school districts need nearly $40 million to finish out the current fiscal year, mostly as a result of recently enacted mandates approved by state lawmakers, State Superintendent Janet Barresi told a legislative panel Tuesday.
Barresi outlined her request for a $37.7 million supplemental appropriation before a joint House and Senate budget committee.
She also asked lawmakers to boost her budget by an additional $289 million next fiscal year, an amount that exceeds the entire $170 million of the state's anticipated growth revenue for next year.
"I believe that the heart of this budget is in the reform implementation," Barresi told lawmakers. "This body passed a breathtaking suite of reforms, and our efforts at the department are fully focused on implementing those reforms in every district."
School districts across Oklahoma are struggling to keep up with an increase in the number of students while state funding for education has dropped more than 10 percent over the last four years. Schools also are being forced to comply with newly enacted mandates from the Legislature, including new requirements that students demonstrate reading proficiency before advancing to third grade and pass a series of end-of-instruction tests before graduating high school.
Barresi's request for additional money for the current fiscal year includes $15 million for remediation to help students pass the new Achieving Classroom Excellence, or ACE, end-of-instruction tests, and $6.5 million for the reading proficiency requirement. Another $8.5 million is for increased costs of teacher health benefits, while nearly $6 million is to help districts cover the estimated increase of nearly 10,000 new students since the end of the last school year.
The ACE requirements, which were passed by lawmakers five years ago and went into effect for last year's graduating seniors, have been especially difficult for districts to meet while dealing with dwindling budgets, said Mike Parkhurst, assistant superintendent at Guymon High School in far northwest Oklahoma.
"It's a nightmare of record keeping, and we've had to hire an additional person to come in and just to help with the testing," said Parkhurst, whose district has seen an increase of about 220 students in recent years. "It's a bureaucratic nightmare that was never funded."
Parkhurst said Guymon schools have stayed afloat largely as a result of federal funding, including stimulus funds that are no longer available, but have seen class sizes increase and experienced difficulty hiring new teachers.
"Teacher shortage is a huge problem," he said. "Young people aren't going to go into education with the salary schedules what they are now."
A first-year teacher in Oklahoma earns $31,600 annually, according to the Department of Education.
Barresi said many districts are raiding other funds, including reserve accounts, to maintain funding levels and keep up with the mandates imposed by the Legislature.
"They have to meet those obligations, and they're dipping into various funds to pay for them," Barresi said.
In Norman, Superintendent Joseph Siano said his district has used money from its building fund to pay operating expenses like utilities. Those funds are traditionally for capital maintenance.
"You can't on a regular basis continue to use other budgets to shore up operational costs," Siano said.
He praised Barresi for asking lawmakers for an increase of more than $234 million next year in direct financial support to public schools to return funding levels to those in fiscal year 2010, even as lawmakers acknowledge such a request will be nearly impossible to meet.
Sen. Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said he doesn't "think there's any question that the Legislature is definitely committed to adequately funding education."
"I think what we've seen today is just part of the budgetary process that we all have to go through," he said, "which is just that everyone makes a gigantic wish list and presents it, and then it's our job to kind of whittle it down and determine what monies we do have and what we're going to be able to do."
Sean Murphy can be reached at
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