Filling school funding gaps with donations termed not sustainable
BY KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2012
9/18/12 at 2:02 PM
Consecutive years of reductions in state aid to public schools have led private donors to raise money this year to hire teachers and reduce class sizes for schools in Jenks and Tulsa.
But administrators and donors acknowledge this is only a temporary solution and isn't sustainable.
"Yes, we can go hire teachers with the money that we've raised but that money would be gone in one year," said Danny Christner, who organized a group of parents to donate money to Jenks Public Schools. "I'd like to fix it for good, not just for a year or two."
In May, the newly formed group gave $1.1 million of its own money to the district to hire an estimated 24 new teachers and reduce class sizes for next year.
"I am very proud of the Jenks patrons who have indicated, through their donations, that exceptionally large class sizes caused by inappropriately low state aid are unfair to children and require immediate and decisive action," Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman said.
The previous month, the Jenks School Board dipped into its fund balance and took $2.4 million to hire 46 teachers and 18 support staff this year.
"Unfortunately, a school district cannot decrease its fund balance every year in order to add teachers," Lehman said. "At some specific time, each school district's fund balance can no longer be decreased because of necessary expenditures that must be paid prior to the annual receipt of state aid. Jenks has reached that point."
Jenks isn't the only district using private donations. Faced with slashing up to 150 teaching positions last spring, Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard raised $1.82 million in private donations earlier this year to add back as many positions as possible.
Because donations are a short-term solution, the Jenks program is evolving into one with more of a focus on advocacy, although raising funds will continue, Christner said.
"I think it goes along the lines of the biblical story," he said. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. But teach him how to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime."
So far, Jenks first- and second-grade classes have benefited this year from the new teachers hired with money from the district's fund balance.
Class sizes have been reduced to a ratio of 26-to-1 from last year's 29-to-1, said Jenks spokeswoman Bonnie Rogers.
"It also enabled the high school to better absorb the growth of over 100 students in grades 10-12 without increasing their average class sizes," she said. "They would have had significant class-size issues without added staff."
Christner said his group wants the district to make reducing class sizes the top priority.
"One of the reasons that the ratio went up is because Jenks has chosen not to cut any programs and instead sacrifice class sizes," Christner said.
He acknowledged Jenks has some outstanding, cutting-edge programs, but "they serve smaller subsets of students, whereas the general population of students is overcrowded."
After several years of funding cuts, the Legislature promised flat funding for education this year.
School districts found out in August they will receive less because the Oklahoma State Department of Education withheld nearly $64 million for virtual and charter schools.
"Everybody knows that the pressure needs to be continually applied on (the Legislature) because you can see how much we've reduced public funding for schools over the last few years," Christner said.
"It's ludicrous. I don't understand what the logic is behind that."
Original Print Headline: On borrowed time
Kim Archer 918-581-8315
First-grade teacher Courtney Pruner works with student Edwin Diaz at Jenks East Elementary School. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
Courtney Pruner teaches first grade at Jenks East Elementary School. She was hired with money the Jenks school board took from its fund balance. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World