McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Schools

October 12, 2013

School budget cuts strain resources, lead to larger class sizes

Ada — Local school officials say tension between them and state department of education leadership is only a symptom of much bigger problems currently facing them in their efforts to educate Ada area youth. State and federal funding have decreased over the last several years while expenses continue to rise.  

For a variety of reasons, local school budgets were cut approximately five percent this year on top of cuts experienced in previous years. “If you voted for State Question 766, you voted for yourself a tax increase,” said Kevin Flowers, Stonewall School superintendent. State Question 766, approved by voters in 2012, exempts intangible property — such as patents, contracts and mineral leases — from ad valorem property taxes. The exemption applies to about 250 businesses, such as utilities, railroads and airlines.

Flowers said the resulting tax break for corporations means state residents are now paying more in millage on their personal property to make up the difference. “We’re spreading greater cost among those of us who are paying,” he said.

Byng Schools Assistant Superintendent Bill Nelson said the deficit caused by passage of State Question 766 meant a $60 million reduction in revenue for state schools for this budget year and it will almost certainly increase in future years as more corporations take advantage of the tax break.

He said the basic aid schools get is $66 per child less today than it was in 2008 while expenses have increased. “School transportation at (Byng schools) is a nightmare. We have a 197 square mile district. Our reimbursement cost was fixed by law in 1974. I don’t know what gas cost in 1974. We were probably all mad it hit a dollar (a gallon). The reimbursement costs have been frozen since then,” he said.

“There’s nothing we can do about transportation expenses, there’s nothing we can do about utilities; those big things that cost us a lot of money every year,” said Pat Harrison, superintendent of Ada public schools. “That’s beyond our control.”

Harrison said the only remaining “big ticket” item in Ada schools’ budget is salaries, forcing him to not replace those who quit or retire. “And that’s the reason class sizes get bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s what we’re all having to do because that’s one of the few things left that we actually can control.”

“We’re growing, our state is growing, our schools are growing and we’re just not getting the dollars per student required to properly operate our schools,” said Cliff Johnson, Latta School superintendent.

In the early 1990s then State Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garret touted House Bill 1017 as the first real commitment to quality and excellence for Oklahoma public schools. Nelson said HB 1017 limited early childhood classes, pre-K through third grade, to 20 students, but the provision has been waived. “All the 1017 stuff has been waived by the state because they know they’re not funding us at that level.”

Nelson said larger class sizes mean less individual attention per student. “If a kid is getting 1/25th of the attention instead of 1/20th of the attention, it will show up later in testing.

“You’re seeing classroom sizes in every school in our county growing and that’s part of the problem,” Flowers said. “Just last year alone we had a 5.5% increase in enrollment and a 5.3% decrease in state aid during that time. We’re under a lot of financial stress.”

“We need our parents to understand, you now have 25 kids in kindergarten where you used to have 20,” Johnson said.

“I think all of us can say (our schools) are not as good now as five years ago,” Harrison said. “I hate to say that, and I don’t like saying that. We’re trying as hard as we can for that not to be the case. But you can’t put a teacher in with 27 kids and the same teacher with 20 and expect the same outcome.”

“We have gradually drawn in to make the cuts as painless as possible and less visible as possible,” Nelson said. “We have just asked more of everybody involved.”

 

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