Oklahoma mid-year aid allocations at for-profit online schools questioned
BY ANDREA EGER & KIM ARCHER World Staff Writers
Friday, January 11, 2013
1/11/13 at 7:01 AM
Public School allocations: Search the list of state aid allocations for all Oklahoma public
The annual process of adjusting schools' state aid allocations mid-year has brought more disappointment than relief, even in Tulsa's fastest-growing suburbs.
For the second year in a row, expansions primarily by online charter schools drew a significant share of the funds set aside that previously would have been distributed among traditional public schools.
"As long as our state laws allow for these for-profit entities to come in, it's a good question to ask, 'Where it will end?' " said Trish Williams, chief financial officer at Tulsa Public Schools.
"The pie is only so big. When you consider that we are back on 2008 dollars essentially, that is now five years ago. We've all seen our costs increase, and now we have for-profit companies as part of that pie."
At the end of each December, the Oklahoma State Department of Education notifies school districts of adjustments made to the initial state aid allocations they typically receive in July.
The dollar amounts are adjusted for a variety of factors, including changes in enrollment during the first nine weeks of the school year and changes in local tax revenues.
The state aid formula is not based only on average daily membership but also takes into account differences in student demographics. For example, schools receive more funding for students who receive free or reduced-rate lunches, as well as for English-language learners, gifted and talented students, and those who fall into a dozen or so special-education categories.
Each grade level also is given a different "weight" in determining state aid.
Administrators said they just received notice that Oklahoma saw just under 10,000 more students come onto the public school rolls since the end of the previous academic year. Since state funding levels remained the same, the consequence is lower per-pupil funding.
Tulsa Public Schools saw its state aid allocation fall more than $2.4 million from the Oklahoma State Department of Education's initial allocation amount. District leaders said more than $300,000 of that is due to the state's reduction in per-pupil funding.
"We also have two new charter schools (in Tulsa) and expected 500 kids would be going to those," said TPS Treasurer Joe Stoeppelwerth.
He was referring to KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory, which converted from a contract site to one of TPS' sponsored charter schools, and Lighthouse Academy of Tulsa, which opened in the building of a chronically low-performing TPS elementary school that the district elected to close.
Still, district leaders budgeted conservatively and are just $900,000 off the mark from their own projections of how much they might receive in state aid.
"Overall, our spending will come in a little bit lower, and we have received some grants, so we will be able to cover that reduction without dipping into our reserves," Williams said.
Both the Bixby and Union school districts saw increases in their midyear adjustments due to growing enrollments, but officials found that the state reduced state aid per weighted student by $4.60. For schools having to add faculty members to accommodate new students, every bit helps.
"While Union appreciates the additional $1.5 million, it is much less than was anticipated," said Debbie Jacoby, that district's chief financial officer.
Gary Watts, chief financial officer at Sand Springs, noted that per-pupil state aid is now below 2008 levels even as costs for utilities, insurance, workers compensation, transportation, state-mandated testing and fuel have increased.
Sapulpa Superintendent Kevin Burr expressed disappointment that state legislators touted "flat" funding for public schools in 2012-13, when the reality in many districts is yet another reduction.
Sapulpa received $141,065 less in state aid than what it was projected to receive, despite an increase in enrollment.
The loss will mostly be offset by increases in its property tax and motor vehicle tax collections.
"But that still doesn't make it easy or necessarily a good thing for our district when we have to adjust in midstream to such a loss," Burr said.
Bixby had the highest percentage increase among Tulsa County schools, up 12.4 percent from its initial allocation to more than $9.4 million. That is related to its 7 percent increase in students, which now number 5,418 in the rapidly expanding suburb.
Still, Bixby Superintendent Kyle Wood said he is disturbed by the amount of state aid being diverted to virtual schools, and he called for greater scrutiny of their use of public funds.
"Oklahoma should truly look at the quality of learning taking place with this type of educational delivery and the profit margin realized due to the payment structure created," he said. "Online schooling is big business, and it would be a mistake for Oklahomans to fail to keep a watchful eye on it."
Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, a new statewide charter school sponsored by the Choctaw-Nicoma Park school district in Oklahoma County, has about 2,265 students this year and received nearly $10.5 million in midyear allocations.
By comparison, the Harrah school district in the same county has virtually the same number of students, at 2,231, but lost more than $75,000 in mid-year adjustments for a total of just $6.05 million.
The Graham school district in Okfuskee County sponsors a virtual charter school called Epic One on One, which received a $2.1 million or 31 percent bump from its initial state aid allocation.
In all, it has been allocated nearly $9.4 million for its 2,178 students.
Charter schools are primary or secondary schools that receive public money but are not subject to all the regulations that apply to other public schools.
The fact that virtual charter schools are getting large amounts of state aid rubs most school administrators the wrong way, particularly since most traditional schools in the Tulsa area offer a variety of online learning options themselves.
"I've been trying to advocate for a reduced rate for (virtual school students). It doesn't cost as much to educate a virtual student as it does a brick-and-mortar kid," said Donna Campo, superintendent at Liberty.
Her district saw a midyear reduction of $20,069 from the $1.8 million August allocation.
"Why at mid-term are we getting a cut?" Campo asked. "I know $20,000 doesn't sound like a lot, but at a small school, it is a lot."
While rumors have persisted that the state Department of Education is holding $13 million of state aid in reserve, spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton said that isn't true.
"We have less than $1 million (in reserve), and it will be allocated within the next month. We're just doing a couple of adjustments, and then it will be allocated out," Pemberton said.
State aid for Tulsa-area schools 2012-13
|Area charter schools (with sponsors)|
Deborah Brown Community School (Langston)
Discovery Schools of Tulsa (Langston)
KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory (TPS)
Tulsa Lighthouse Charter School (TPS)
Tulsa School of Arts & Sciences (TPS)
Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education
Original Print Headline: Educators question aid
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470 Kim Archer 918-581-8315
Gabe Peak (left), Gaige Stock and DJ Downs read during their third-grade class at Sapulpa's Freedom Elementary School on Thursday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Rebecca Eubanks works on an assignment during her third-grade class at Sapulpa's Freedom Elementary School on Thursday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World