Educators, Democrats cry foul over Oklahoma budget inaction

Educators rallied in Oklahoma in 2014 and 2015 to protest education funding cuts. The 2016 budget crisis promises even more cuts. Photo by Rob Howard.

More than 100 school districts are considering a four-day school week or fewer school days as they cope with state funding cuts that also may force districts to cut more than 1,000 jobs and increase already large class sizes. These consequences to inaction on Oklahoma’s $1.3 Billion budget shortfall are according to a new survey of Oklahoma school officials conducted by the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA), and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA).

These cuts to public education moved nearly three dozen Oklahoma educators, frustrated by reduced education funding and some Republican-backed changes to public education, to file for state House and Senate seats on the first day of filing for office this week, according to the Associated Press.

GOP Gov. Mary Fallin chose the same day to announce her revised budget ideas for overcoming the budget crisis. The AP reported the Governor, “said she would work with the Legislature over the next six weeks to prevent deep cuts in spending on schools, highways and public safety.

“Fallin said at a press conference that the proposals are among a variety of measures she and lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering to increase state revenue amid a sharp downturn in energy tax collections and assure ‘that we don't have the disastrous type of cuts that we could see if we don't get our work done here at the Capitol.’"

The Oklahoma Democratic Party quickly fired back. "It was rather opportunistic for the Governor to hold a press conference, drawing media away from these candidates and their message, while she and her Republican leadership continues to get raked over the coals for the very issues that brought these teachers to file for legislative office in the first place.

“Her talk about supporting public education, teacher pay raises, and even the woes of shrinking access to rural healthcare, is a mockery of what is really going on within the Executive and Legislative branches of our state government," said Sarah Baker, Communications Director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

CCOSA and OSSBA also criticized the inaction by the government. Leaders said, “The survey results underscore the need for state leaders to quickly finalize the education budget and are calling on lawmakers to do so before the end of April.”

Although noting that both organizations appreciate the House Speaker’s attempt to cap next year’s education cuts at no more than 5 percent of current funding levels, they said, “Timing is key so school leaders can accurately plan for cuts and protect classrooms as much as possible. Districts must begin the process of layoffs by the end of April in order to satisfy state laws regarding the employment of education employees.”

“This devastating budget situation will cause this generation of students to suffer lost opportunities,” said CCOSA Co-Executive Director Ryan Owens. “School leaders are making life-changing decisions for employees, students and their families, and they’re being forced to do so based on estimates.”

Among the findings of the CCOSA/OSSBA survey were:

●     More than 1,000 Oklahoma school employees could find themselves out of a job next year, as districts lay off or choose not to rehire teachers, administrators, support employees and choose not to fill vacant positions.

●     Districts are quickly depleting their cash reserves to pay this year’s bills and to cushion the blow of next year’s anticipated cuts.

●     More than a dozen districts expect they will be unable to pay all of their bills this school year.

●     Many districts are reducing employee benefits.

●     Dozens of districts are reducing or eliminating arts and athletic programs, advanced courses, foreign language offerings and summer programs. Many will not buy textbooks.

Many districts have been trimming their budgets for years as state funding has fallen or stayed flat despite rising costs and increased enrollment statewide. Class sizes already have been creeping up both because of budget concerns and a historic teacher shortage. District leaders say even larger class sizes and fewer class offerings will be the most noticeable effects of next year’s budget cuts, according to the survey.

The AP reported reaction by legislative leaders to the filing for office by educators. “’It's no wonder educators from both political parties are mad, frustrated and want to see a change, and that's evidenced by the number of educators who are coming to the Capitol today to file for office, to take on the Republican incumbents, and hopefully take this state in a new direction,’ said Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City,” the Democratic leader in the House.

Democratic spokesperson Sarah Baker excoriated Fallin and the GOP legislature, saying, “"Nothing good has come from her leadership or that of the Republican legislature. It is troublesome to watch her stand in front of a room full of people and talk about ‘tough decisions’ and ‘tightening our belts.’

“If we tighten the belt anymore, we're going to lose our bottom half. Oklahoma Republicans, especially the Governor, continues to blame everyone else for what's happening as they sit idly by, reciting tired talking points and failed rhetoric. There is nothing of substance coming from the Governor and the legislature knows this - even members of her own party.”

Baker noted that cutting school budgets has not happened just because of revenue shortfalls from the collapse of oil and gas prices, saying, "The Governor suddenly seems concerned with the crisis of public education and rural healthcare. Where was this outrage when more than 20,000 parents and educators showed up on the Capitol steps two years ago?

“Where was this outrage when leaders in her party chose to cut funding to education when oil was going for more than $100 a barrel? This fake outrage from Mary Fallin is timed perfectly to coincide with the fact that Democrats and educators are flocking to the Capitol to put their name on a ballot in hopes of shutting down the circus which has become our state government.”

The confusion at the Capitol isn’t getting any better. Even Republicans were reluctant to embrace the Governor’s latest budget proposals, according to the AP. “House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said members of his majority Republican House caucus are concerned about some of the governor's ideas, including her plan to use bonds to pay for transportation projects.

"’I think our members would look at that if there were a way to pay for it in the future,’ Hickman said.

“Hickman also questioned whether adopting the governor's ideas would raise sufficient revenue to avoid deeper cuts to state agencies.

"’It's probably somewhat optimistic,’ he said.”

Referring to the number of educators filing for the legislature, the Democrat’s Baker said, “"We have news for Governor Fallin, Speaker Hickman, and the rest of the Republican 'leadership': Oklahomans are tired of your lunacy and Democrats are running for office to make necessary changes and put Oklahoma back on track."

The Gayly – April 15, 2016 @ 1 p.m.