School districts of all sizes were confused and angered by the intent of the executive order Gov. Mary Fallin issued Tuesday.
And multiple district administrators questioned the meaning of a key phrase in that order: What exactly is the definition of an “instructional expenditure”?
Fallin issued a directive Tuesday evening that instructed the Oklahoma State Board of Education to compile a list of school districts that spend less than 60 percent of their budgets on instructional expenditures and then make recommendations for administrative consolidation or annexation.
Where the line on instructional expenditures is drawn, school district administrators said, could have real consequences for the districts and could include key omissions.
“What’s not included in that number … are services that directly assist and help students,” Owasso Superintendent Clark Ogilvie said on Wednesday.
“I’m talking about salaries for counselors, nurses, media specialists. Those folks. Their salaries aren’t included in instruction, and they should be,” said Ogilvie. “So that’s kind of deceiving to say, ‘You’re not spending enough on instruction.’ If you were to throw them in there, most districts would easily exceed 60 percent.”
The order also elicited strong responses from other district leaders.
When reached by the Tulsa World, Kaylin Coody, superintendent of Hilldale Public Schools in Muskogee, hadn’t heard about the order but said it seemed “suspicious” and appeared to be a renewed call for school consolidation.
“There seems to be this feeling that’s there’s always this perpetual waste. I don’t know of a school that has room for waste right now. We are all stretched as far as we can stretch,” said Coody.
She noted that state statutes already cap administrative expenses based on district size. The State Department of Education noted the same thing in an email to the World.
Coody said a definition of instructional expenditures might not include a speech pathologist or funds for upkeep of district facilities.
“I have no idea what she’s (Fallin is) talking about on that definition,” said Coody.
Administrators of larger districts such as Union also had strong words for Fallin.
“We have a revenue problem, plain and simple. The governor needs to be reminded that our schools are already the lowest funded in the nation. Since 2008, we have had to increase our efficiencies while being cut more than 22 percent,” said Kirt Hartzler, Union Public Schools superintendent.
“Why do we continue to send a message to the world that we do not care to invest in ourselves and our future through one of our most basic core services — common education?”
His Jenks counterpart, Stacey Butterfield, said she agreed with Fallin’s idea to “identify cost-saving measure and efficiencies” but found the definition of instructional expenditures “problematic.”
“We should not exclude key positions in our schools such as paraprofessionals, instructional assistants, school counselors, and library media specialists. … These positions are also vital to the education of our young people,” said Butterfield.
She and Deborah Gist, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools — the second-largest district in the state — called for an increase in teacher salaries.
Gist said: “We are all looking to our state leaders to come together and create a sustainable plan to generate revenue, increase teacher salaries and put Oklahoma on track to be the world-class destination our children deserve. … I urge our legislators to go back to the table.”
Fallin’s executive orders Tuesday came on the heels of her veto last week of parts of a budget bill passed during the legislative special session. While her executive actions took many by surprise, the policies in them are things she has supported in the past.
Michael McNutt, Fallin’s spokesman, provided the National Center for Education Statistics’ definition of instructional expenditures to the World, but he said the governor’s executive order directs the state Board of Education to come up with its own criteria for an instructional expenditure.
“It’s more of an example,” he said of the agency’s definition.
“The task it’s giving the state Board of Education is to compile this information, then to assess it to see what that information shows, and then can there be some savings achieved,” said McNutt. “The whole point is for efficiency in tax dollars.”