Flexibility granted in new funding for Oklahoma schools
BY JIM MYERS World Washington Bureau
Thursday, August 12, 2010
8/12/10 at 4:42 AM
WASHINGTON - Oklahoma legally can take two years to spend new funds that Congress provided to save thousands of teacher jobs, despite a big push by the Obama administration to use the money quickly after its release.
"This school semester. Now," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters. "We do not want people to wait until January or February. We want people to act, starting now."
Duncan said schools may be facing the most serious budget crisis since the Great Depression.
But, in that same conference call, Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Carmel Martin conceded that a pre- existing law to the one signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama gives schools the legal right to carry over the money until the following school year.
"They technically have until September of 2012 to spend the funds," Martin said.
Oklahoma's share of the $10 billion is expected to be around $119 million. Estimates on the number of teacher jobs that would save in the state range from 1,900 to 2,400.
Martin's explanation of existing law could provide the kind of financial cushion that some Oklahoma schools want next year after the current stimulus dollars disappear.
Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard said the revelation made his day.
"We will follow the spirt of the law by using some of the funds for relief this year," he said, "but we will carry forward a significant amount of this money for when stimulus funds run out next year."
He added: "This gives us the flexibility we need to utilize our resources in the best interest of kids. This is a godsend for us."
Duncan, whose office issued information last week indicating that schools would be expected to spend the money this year, again made it clear that remains the administration's preference.
"We felt this huge sense of urgency," he said, adding that the administration wanted to avoid a "huge catastrophe" this year:
"We didn't want to see class size skyrocket. We didn't want to see after-school programs eliminated. We didn't want to see extracurricular programs eliminated."
In response to questions about states that may not be facing the kind of crisis described by Duncan, Martin explained that the new money can be used to pay salaries and benefits of current employees. She said that could help support certain services that had been cut to save teacher jobs.
"They do have the legal right to use the funds through the next year, if that was appropriate," she said.
Martin stressed that states still would have to maintain their commitment to education funding.
Duncan said his agency will have application forms ready for states to fill out in a matter of days and plans to have the new money to states in September. "This is the right thing to do for our children, for our teachers and for our economy," he said.
The secretary said a July report from the Center on Education Policy found that 75 percent of school districts receiving stimulus funds expect to cut teaching jobs in the coming school year.
Shelly Hickman of the Oklahoma Department of Education said a survey taken before the state Legislature made appropriations indicated that schools were anticipating cutting at least 3,000 teaching and support jobs.
"We won't know for sure how many fewer personnel there are statewide until school districts officially report that information to us in October," Hickman said.
The president of the local teachers union said she hadn't yet spoken to Tulsa Public Schools leaders about their plans for the funds.
"If they're going to put it in the carryover (fund), that frees up money for other things," said Lynn Stockley, the president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. "Once school starts and we see what it actually looks like in the classroom, then we can make the argument if we need to, 'Hey, we need to use some of this money and put some more teachers in the schools.' "
World Staff Writer Andrea Eger contributed to this story.
Original Print Headline: Spending flexibility granted for funds
Jim Myers (202) 484-1424