Oklahoma schools face admin spending cuts
(Okla.) As consumers statewide began paying new taxes on tobacco products and gas earlier this month to support schools, the Oklahoma Department of Education has begun assembling for the first time a list of school districts that are spending too much on administration.
The tax hikes, which are expected to raise $450 million annually, were the result of a hard-fought campaign by teachers who staged a nine-day walkout in April in protest of low salaries.
Depending on experience, teachers are getting raises of up to $6,000 per year, while support staff are receiving a boost of $1,250.
The tax increases began July 1 and imposed a hike of 3 cents per gallon on gasoline, 6 cents a gallon on diesel and $1 on a pack of cigarettes.
At the same time, school managers are bracing for the impacts that will be felt over a new spending mandate.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order in November ordering the Department of Education to identify all school districts that do not spend at least 60 percent of their budget on instructional expenses. Local educational agencies that are on that list could end up consolidating with another district or be annexed into another LEA.
The delivery of the first list is due Sept. 1.
According to a 2014 report from Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit journalism enterprise, 3.2 percent of all school district spending went to support administrative costs—a figure that placed Oklahoma sixth nationally.
According to the governor’s office, four out of five districts spend less than 60 percent on teacher salaries and instructional resources.
One exception, Crescent Public Schools, located north of Oklahoma City, spends 64 percent of its budget in the classroom—but Superintendent Bart Watkins said he wished it could be higher.
“We have scraped by about as thin as you can make it,” Watkins told the Alva Review-Courier last week. “We lost nine positions. We don’t have band, vocal music, math interventions, reading interventions. None of that exists anymore.”
Technically the governor’s order does not force entire districts to mergers, instead it targets administrative services such as superintendent duties, fiscal services and facility maintenance.
Fallin said when she signed the order that the priority of districts needed to be focused on the classroom.
“The most important component of successful educational outcomes is an effective teacher in every classroom who has the instructional materials and technology needed to enhance student learning,” the governor said in a statement. “It is important to send a greater percentage of taxpayer dollars to support classroom learning rather than non-instructive costs. It’s time we get serious about reducing administrative overhead.”
Although it was months later that the Legislature finally approved additional support for teacher salaries, observers noted that the governor’s order made it harder for conservative Republican lawmakers to argue that too much school money was being wasted.