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Oklahoma State Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi blames what she calls “the liberal education establishment” for not giving teachers a raise or stipend. In a recent press release, Barresi said the numbers back her up. “Over the past two years, the amount of carryover has surged to more than $771 million,” she wrote. Barresi claims using just 10 percent of schools’ carryover money along with a two percent “reprioritization of overhead” would give Oklahoma teachers an extra $2,000 in pay in the majority of school districts. She further claims to have cut administrative overhead at the state department of education by $250,000 a month, or 28 percent of total overhead.
Area superintendents say carryover funds are their insurance against the rampant uncertainty of school financing. “She doesn’t know carryover is what schools use to run on while they’re waiting for reimbursements that come from (the state department of education),” Byng Assistant Superintendent Bill Nelson said.
Public schools often pay for services received on the assumption the state department of education will reimburse them to replenish their funds. Often, however, reimbursement is held up over minor questions. “They’ll hold up a $250,000 claim for $3,” said Pat Harrison, Ada Schools superintendent. “We’ve already expended that money. We need that money back right now,” he said.
“(Barresi) assumes you can rid a whole bunch (of carryover funds) and it will just reappear next year,” Nelson said. “Long term superintendents very carefully saved money and built it up so they could withstand some of this weirdness. I can spend it all tomorrow and it would be gone, but I’m not going to just go and write a check next week and replace it. I’m going to start the process all over again.”
“Superintendent Barresi welcomes and encourages input,” said Tricia Pemberton, senior communications specialist for Oklahoma State Department of Education, Barresi’s spokesperson. “She routinely meets with superintendents from across our state in her leadership advisory meetings. Each and every week, she visits with educators and students in various school districts throughout Oklahoma. She understands and appreciates the concerns of educators. That engagement will continue, but as long as the focus remains on what is best for Oklahoma students and parents,” Pemberton said.
“That means ensuring an effective teacher is in each classroom. Outside of a parent, Superintendent Barresi knows, a really good teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education — and should be rewarded for their exceptional work. That is why she has proposed a $2,000 stipend be given to teachers for one year.
“This is absolutely doable. We are at a time when state school districts have record amounts of carryover funds. Superintendent Barresi is an advocate of a healthy carryover. Her proposal entails asking districts to take simply 10 percent of their carryover and combine it with 2 percent of discretionary spending to give teachers this much-deserved $2,000 stipend."
Harrison said he could conceivably give teachers a $2,000 raise but the uncertainty of school financing makes it a foolish proposition. “It’s going to cost me between $600,000 to $700,000 to give a one-year $2,000 raise,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for that money to be gone when you don’t know what’s going to happen (regarding future funding).”
Harrison said financial uncertainty, larger classrooms and fewer resources are symptoms leading to the bigger problem of plummeting teacher morale. “As much as we’ve tried to keep that away from the classroom and keep teachers out of that discussion, it’s now trickling down to them. Teachers are starting to feel that now. Morale is low in schools now. Teachers have got to do more everyday with less and it’s getting harder and harder.”
“Teachers have not seen a raise in forever,” Johnson said. “Barresi’s pay raise plan is not feasible or sustainable. It’s clearly planned out by someone that doesn’t have an understanding of how school finances work, which is alarming.”
Asked about Barresi’s claim to have dramatically cut overhead at the state level, Nelson said it shows when attempting to get questions answered. “There’s no one up there to answer any questions,” he said. “She’s gutted that department. She’s taken out the people who knew the answers so now getting an answer is not about a phone call or an email, it’s a process that takes long periods of time.”