Educators fear consequences of more budget cuts
BY CASEY SMITH, ANDREA EGER & KIM ARCHER World Staff Writers
Sunday, May 13, 2012
5/13/12 at 7:29 AM
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Oklahoma’s education funding
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Less than one year after finding a new school home, Brian Banfield is seeing his professional future go into limbo because of the budget cuts affecting public schools across Oklahoma.
Banfield's previous school closed as part of a 2011 district consolidation effort. Now, evaporating federal funds will force Tulsa's Eliot Elementary to do without this young science teacher.
"We have some budding scientists here because the science teacher before me was excellent. It's such a shame because you form these bonds with the kids, parents and faculty, and then you have to leave that," he said.
A Tulsa World analysis of data from the Office of State Finance shows a staggering string of lower state aid allocations for public schools since revenue collections plummeted in 2009 - $300 million less in 2010, $295.7 million less in 2011 and $253.5 million less in 2012.
In Tulsa-area schools this year, that meant $237 to $387 - or 13 to 20 percent - less in state aid for every child compared to three years ago.
Now that collections have rebounded, several grass-roots parent groups have formed in the Tulsa area to stand alongside school leaders fighting for the restoration of state aid for schools.
"We have already lost over $20 million in Tulsa Public Schools," said Superintendent Keith Ballard. "I am told by legislators that if the income tax is reduced, it will cost $56 million this year and $140 million the next year. What that income tax cut is going to mean for most people is a minuscule amount of money. The irony of this is $50 million through the (state aid) formula would give us back the 75 to 80 teacher jobs that we are losing. Where are our priorities?"
State legislators have no more than two weeks to grapple with that question because the legislative session must end by May 25. Some state leaders, including Gov. Mary Fallin, believe a cut in personal income tax will stimulate Oklahoma's economy by giving residents and small businesses more money to spend and invest. Education leaders and outraged parents fear the tax cut would mean even less money for education and more difficult budget decisions.
Facts and figures
The Tulsa World's analysis shows that nearly every local district that responded to requests for information is receiving less in state aid per student than they did five years ago - two years before the economic downturn.
All the while, expenses have gone up. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that inflation has increased 2.99 percent in this region.
Nearly every local school is receiving 2 to 16 percent, or $29 to $304 per student, less in state aid per student than in fiscal year 2007. Union Public Schools is the exception and has seen a 6 percent increase during that time.
There are two major categories of state funds for public schools - appropriations and dedicated revenues. Legislative appropriations are the largest revenue source for almost all Oklahoma public schools. But legislators debate the amount to appropriate, as well as how to distribute the money, every session.
Some lawmakers argue that Oklahoma's public schools should be faring well because the state received $358.5 million in federal economic stimulus funds. But those funds came with strings attached for specific purposes, most of which had to be one-time costs.
Oklahoma also received a $119 million share of the federal jobs bill, which was intended to help schools save teacher jobs in states still reeling from the recession. Most area schools spent those funds right away, while Tulsa chose to use the bulk of theirs this year. The deadline for spending it is Sept. 30.
Marlow Perkins Sipes is co-founder of a parent group called "49th is Not OK," which has organized a Tulsa rally and a march on the steps of the Capitol in recent weeks. With parents at her children's school trying to raise funds to save their P.E. teacher, Sipes says every Oklahoman should be concerned about what has happened in their schools and what's next.
"If the state government doesn't replenish that money now that we are in a period of growth, we are going to see increased class sizes, course offerings eliminated, key resources lost, teachers and coaches that are going to be cut," Sipes said. "We need $50 million in new money - not including benefits or National Board Certified Teacher bonuses."
Legislators have asked why that dollar figure has become her group's rallying cry.
"Tulsa Public Schools gets about 6 percent of state aid. That cut would prevent the loss of 75 teachers," she said.
Impact of budget cuts
During the previous three years, Tulsa Public Schools' state funding declined $21.6 million. The district responded by slashing $22.1 million out of its budgets, said Chief of Staff Amy Polonchek.
In addition to giving departments less money, the district cut transportation costs by changing school bell times, furloughed employees and relied on volunteer substitutes for a year.
A partnership with an energy education firm has paid for itself and reaped the district millions in savings on utility costs. But the most dramatic savings have come by eliminating hundreds of jobs and closing 13 schools. TPS cut 130 administrative and support positions and reduced its number of teaching assistants.
And according to state figures, TPS has reduced its teaching force by 291 teachers, or just over 10 percent, since 2009.
The result? Burgeoning class sizes districtwide, with some high school class sizes nearing 40 students.
Misty Gerber, a teacher at Penn Elementary School, recently described life with 39 sixth-graders in a standard-sized classroom. "There are many behavior concerns because students are not given the kind of personal space, privacy and individual attention desired by students of this age group," she said.
TPS is in the process of slashing 150 teaching positions for 2012-13, in part because federal stimulus funding to save teacher jobs is running out. Officials say Memorial High School likely will have classes with 38-40 students each. Webster High School may lose its band along with the elimination of its band director's position.
Banfield, the science teacher at Eliot Elementary School whose job is being trimmed, wonders about his future. "Will I have a job next year and if so, where and what will I teach?" he said. "It's very difficult to have the worry and stress hanging over you. It also affects the kids because they know."
Suburbs' double whammy
Suburban schools are struggling to stretch thinning budgets as more students move into their districts.
"At some point, the thinking in this state has gone from creating an environment to make our schools thrive, to deciding schools should be given just enough to survive," said Union Assistant Superintendent Kathy Dodd.
Union Public Schools would have $6.4 million more to spend to hire 142 additional teachers and several additional teachers' assistants if state aid levels were at 2008-09 levels, said Debbie Jacoby, the district's chief financial officer. Union's per-student state aid dropped 13 percent since then. While the district has worked to keep class sizes low in elementary grades, some classes in seventh to 12th grades have 40 students, which Dodd described as "simply unacceptable."
Area schools have cut costs in a variety of ways - early retirement programs, energy efficiency initiatives, streamlined transportation services and cuts to elective classes, teachers' assistants and tutors.
"It makes me cringe when I hear policymakers say that districts have been able to compensate for a reduced budget and that students have not suffered as a consequence," Dodd said. "I know that is not true based on what I experience every day as both a school administrator and a parent."
Since 2008-09, Jenks has increased the number of classroom teachers by 7 percent, or 40 teachers, according to state figures. But with an ever-expanding student population, Jenks officials recently decided to dip into their fund balance to add 46 teachers for 2012-13.
Sand Springs has cut 32 teaching positions since 2008-09, a 10 percent reduction, according to state data. The district has eliminated drivers' education, foreign language classes, assistant coaching positions and teachers' assistants, said Superintendent Lloyd Snow.
Owasso Superintendent Clark Ogilvie questions the logic of a state income tax reduction: "Lost in all of the political rhetoric is the fact that schools have had to absorb deep cuts over the past three or four years - $4.5 million in Owasso alone - and yet we have more students to educate today than we did three or four years ago."
Broken Arrow's per-student state aid has fallen 17 percent since the 2008-09 school year. Yet Broken Arrow has gained 965 students since 2009. In 2010, the district chopped $5.1 million from its budget, and 59 staff positions left vacant through resignations or retirement were not refilled.
The district plans to add five to 10 new teachers next year, although it could use more because more students are expected to move into the area, Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall said.
Where to sacrifice next?
School leaders are beginning to contemplate what they might have to lose next if state income tax cuts result in lower state aid for schools.
In Tulsa, an idea that has been discussed but avoided until now has just been made public - the end of school bus service for magnet school students.
The savings, estimated at $697,698, could be used to cover the salaries and benefits of 16 classroom teachers, officials said last week.
Last week, the Sand Springs school board voted to cut additional employee positions, including six teachers' assistants, two administrative office staffers and two custodians. Even so, Snow said, "Our district will spend approximately $500,000 to $800,000 more than we will receive in revenue. Next year, we anticipate we will spend $1.8 million more than we will get on revenue."
In Jenks, programs such as band, art, vocal music, foreign language classes and ROTC are at risk if cuts in state aid continue, said Assistant Superintendent Debbie Burchfield.
She said the conundrum is whether to slash good programs or let class sizes continue to creep up.
Jenks Middle School algebra teacher Jennifer Blackshare sees firsthand how rising class sizes affect students.
"I have up to 35 kids smashed into one classroom," she said. "The reality is that you just can't get everybody. You hope you're engaging them."
Blackshare said that when she stops to work with one student, other students get distracted by one another. And students who are stuck on a problem and waiting for her attention simply stop working.
"You see kids starting to slip through the cracks because there is so much need for remediation," Blackshare said. "It is an impossible situation, and it's not fair to the students."
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Original Print Headline: Educators fear consequences of more budget cuts
Casey Smith 918-732-8106
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Kim Archer 918-581-8315
Brian Banfield, a third-grade science teacher at Eliot Elementary School, assists student Allison Sellers on Thursday. The district has decided to cut Banfield's job. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World