State aid shortfall keeps Oklahoma school budgets on shaky ground
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Friday, August 03, 2012
8/03/12 at 7:20 AM
The school budgeting process always involves some educated guesses, but this year, local district leaders say their guessing has turned into gambling.
Because the state Legislature allocated the same amount for state aid to schools as they received for last year, school officials were expecting similar dollar amounts in their initial state aid notices for 2012-13. But the Oklahoma State Department of Education withheld nearly $64 million, or 3.52 percent, of all state aid, compared to the $41 million, or 2.26 percent, it kept in reserve at the beginning of 2011-12 for anticipated growth, namely at virtual schools and new charter schools.
Traditional school districts stand to receive whatever amount of that reserve is left over at the mid-point in the year, when funding adjustments for student enrollment growth or decline are typically made.
"We are going to go out on a limb and hope the money for new students comes in. We are dipping into our fund balance to start school," said Union Superintendent Cathy Burden. "I really think we need a better budgeting plan in Oklahoma. We are constantly challenged with this, but when priorities are established by the state Department (of Education) rather than the Legislature, it gets more confusing. It throws everything off."
The amounts vary, but every local school district surveyed reported less state aid compared to last year - $1.75 million in Tulsa, $210,000 in Jenks, $522,827 in Owasso and $692,000 in Union.
Bonnie Rogers, spokeswoman for Jenks Public Schools, said they, too, are left hoping for the best.
"At this time, we are not making any budget adjustments and we hope that we will get the money back in our mid-year allocation," she said.
Even before state aid allocation notices went out, Tulsa Public Schools officials were considering drastic reductions to balance the budget. On the chopping block were services such as busing for magnet school students, as well as advanced and elective course offerings, including Webster High School's band program.
For now, Trish Williams, chief financial officer at TPS, said they are holding off on such drastic measures "until we see what fall enrollment looks like, and more importantly our mid-year adjustment."
The district was initially faced with the prospect of slashing up to 150 teaching positions because of the end of federal Jobs Bill funding and the conversion of two TPS sites to charter schools. But that number has also fallen because Superintendent Keith Ballard raised nearly $1.82 million in private donations to fund 45 teaching positions and held open a slew of vacant administrative positions to fund another 19.
Ballard is quick to point out that those are short-term solutions to ongoing issues.
"All of those cuts are still very real possibilities. The state legislature is going to have to offer more support to schools so I can save more teaching positions and maintain services (for students)," he said. "I am dismayed at the state superintendent's arbitrary decision to withhold more money to meet her priorities, including for-profit virtual school companies, but I don't think this late in the game there is anything dramatic we can do other than hope for more funding. We are going to stay the course."
Original Print Headline: Schools on shaky ground with budgets
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Cathy Burden: The Union District will have to dip into its fund balance