The looming $20 million budget cut for Tulsa Public Schools was inevitable without further state intervention, according to district officials.
When TPS dipped into its reserve funds to avoid a budget deficit in 2018-19, the district sought to buy time until lawmakers could restore at least some of the operational funds cut since the recession.
“We were hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” TPS Chief Financial Officer Nolberto Delgadillo said.
Recent gains from the Legislature did little to mitigate a decade’s worth of cuts to education funding. Although the past two years delivered historic pay raises for teachers, districts received almost nothing for school operations.
Oklahoma made more cuts to per-pupil funding than any other state from 2008 to 2018. Meanwhile, Tulsa Public Schools saw an enrollment loss of 5,000 students during that time, lessening its share of the state aid funding formula. The district projected a revenue loss of about $15 million between 2018-19 and the current school year.
Over the past few years, the district reportedly made reductions of close to $22 million through cutting positions, district office reorganizations, school closures and consolidations. It hasn’t been enough.
The continued financial loss forced TPS to rely on its reserve funds, or fund balance, for the first time in almost a decade last year. Officials used $4 million in 2018-19, dropping the fund balance to about $28 million. They expect to use $13 million to $17 million this year to close the budget gap.
Delgadillo said the fund balance is on track to run out by next year, giving way to the $20 million deficit. Now TPS must find a way to slash about 7% of its total budget.
It appears to be the largest shortfall the district has seen, at least in recent history, he said.
The school district has planned a series of public meetings at every high school during September and October to hear what services and supports matter most to families, employees and other stakeholders. Officials say they intend to narrow in on a core set of priorities to improve student experiences and regrow enrollment, which largely has been affected by the rising number of charter school options and suburban growth.
If nothing is done outside of eliminating $20 million before the 2020-21 school year, then Delgadillo estimates TPS will have to cut another $5 million to $6 million in 2021-22 with no fund balance for a safety net.
“The goal is to not go through a rinse-and-repeat cycle,” he said. “I think that’s what’s critical about the community engagement and how we’re focusing on investments that not only create a compelling argument for families to stay and come to Tulsa Public Schools, but it also addresses some of the structural issues to put us in a better place to address any sort of revenue shortfalls.
“And it’s definitely thinking through how we implement a long-term strategy. We’re talking about shaping our future. It isn’t shaping tomorrow. It’s about making those smart investments so that we put ourselves in position over the next several years.”
Rebecca Fine, education policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said she’s not surprised by the TPS shortfall given the decade of devastating budget cuts and lack of operational funding in the state’s recent education boosts.
During the 2018 legislative session, Oklahoma increased per-pupil funding by 19% after inflation. That was the largest increase among states that have made the deepest cuts to education funding since 2008, according to an annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
However, Oklahoma still remained the second-deepest cutting state in the nation after being surpassed by Texas.
“I think that really sums up the position that TPS is in — that we did make a historic amount of progress,” Fine said. “Great. But we also cut more than almost anyone else over the last 10 years. So I don’t know why we would expect that TPS wouldn’t be in a budget shortfall when we still have more work to do to get them the funding that they need.”
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Source: Tulsa Public Schools Preliminary School Budget and Financing Plan 2019-20