Tulsa Public Schools must find a way to slash $20 million from its budget for the 2020-21 school year as a result of declining enrollment and a persisting financial shortfall.
Oklahoma’s second-largest school district has designed a community engagement process to seek the public’s input this fall in how to shift investments and reduce expenses to operate within its continued fiscal constraints.
State education funding has continued to lag since 2008. The historic funding increase included in the recent state budget was not enough to offset extensive budget cuts from the past decade.
Student enrollment at TPS has declined by about 5,000 students during that time, resulting in less state funding. Enrollment helps determine the district’s share of the state aid funding formula.
In the past four years, district officials made about $22 million in budget cuts through district office reorganizations, school closures, consolidations and changes to transportation services.
“This is further exacerbated because as our enrollment revenue decreases and operating expenses increase, we’re also managing a decade of broader state education funding cuts,” TPS Chief Financial Officer Nolberto Delgadillo said. “So it’s essentially a double whammy, where state funding is not where it needs to be along with declining enrollment.”
Last school year TPS used about $4 million of its reserve funds — known as the fund balance — to close the budget gap, and it estimates that it will use $13 million to $17 million this year.
The fund balance, currently about $30 million, had not been dipped into for a decade prior to last year. It comprises the unspent money that carries forward to the next year, which serves as a safety net for financial emergencies.
In the following school year, Delgadillo said the district anticipates an annual deficit of $20 million. Because TPS can’t submit its annual budget with a negative balance, the district must find ways to cut the $20 million, which makes up 6% to 7% of its general fund.
Delgadillo said the goal in the next few months is to look at how to reduce expenses by addressing structural issues and reallocate resources to improve enrollment.
TPS plans to host a dozen community engagement events from Sept. 16 through Oct. 11 to determine what core initiatives, services and supports the public values the most. There also will be community workshops on Oct. 19, Oct. 22 and Oct. 23. Additional community events will be hosted from Oct. 20 through Dec. 16.
“We’ll identify and implement the most effective resource allocations to support those priority investments that matter most to the families we serve,” Delgadillo said.
District officials hope to present a modified budget and recommendations to the school board by Dec. 16. The new budget would be implemented in 2020-21.
In terms of budget reduction, Delgadillo said it’s important to focus on the broader system as a whole rather than hone in on a single solution. Additional school consolidations may be considered, but they won’t get TPS close to the $20 million mark because of offsetting expenses. Other structural changes are needed, he said.
No area is off the table, although Delgadillo said the district will honor its commitment not to consolidate any more schools in north Tulsa in the near future.
District employees and community members will need to consider several tradeoffs for resource reallocation. For example, would they rather maintain classroom sizes or increase transportation routes? Would they rather pursue a highly competitive pay structure for teachers and support staff or increased professional development?
“I think by no means are we not going to be faced with hard decisions,” Delgadillo said. “All around there’s going to be hard decisions.
“I wish we were talking about, ‘We have an extra $20 million. Community, let us know how you want us to spend it.’ But that’s not the case.
“But just because there’s going to be hard decisions doesn’t mean we can’t make smart decisions.”
Superintendent Deborah Gist discussed the budget woes and need for cuts during Tuesday evening’s school board meeting and sent a detailed letter to employees on Monday outlining the district’s engagement plans this fall.
The objective of the community meetings will be to narrow in on the district’s core set of priorities to improve student experiences while regrowing enrollment, her letter states.
TPS must enact the most effective resource allocations to support those priority investments, Gist said. She added that board members will have to make “some extraordinarily difficult” decisions to ensure that the district’s future is viable, sustainable and equitable.
“While the work ahead will no doubt be challenging, we also have an exciting chance to design the best possible school system that we can for the children and families we serve,” she said. “We have a powerful opportunity to develop and implement a set of strategic investments and resource reallocations that will help us to thrive within the means that we have been given with (the) state’s investment in education.”
Gist also touched on two other areas of work the district is looking at this year. One of those is implementing a unified enrollment system in which parents need to fill out only one application during a single application period to sign up their children for school. This change resulted from public input regarding the difficulty and confusion of having multiple enrollment windows and different types of applications.
In a unified enrollment system, families reportedly would be able to choose multiple schools and rank them in order of preference. The system would launch this winter for families who are enrolling children for the 2020-21 school year.
The district also is exploring how to create consistent grade configurations at all schools, making it easier for students and families to transition through elementary, middle and high school grades. There currently are 14 grade configurations across the district.
Gist said more information about unified enrollment and grade configurations will be released over the coming months.
Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said she appreciates the additional education funding secured by legislators, who she believes are cleaning up a mess they didn’t make.
However, Mott-Wright laments that the state remains well below 2007-08 education funding levels despite Oklahoma’s having 50,000 more students now. She said schools need more resources than ever to support the growing needs of students, and she called Tulsa Public Schools’ $20 million shortfall a ripple effect caused by a decade of negligence at the state level.
Mott-Wright doesn’t like to think about forcing more budget cuts on students, but she knows this latest reduction is inevitable. She said the planned community engagement events are a crucial part of the process.
“I hope the input will be valued from the community and parents,” she said. “I’m a teacher and a parent. But I definitely hope a lot of emphasis will be put on the input from the ones who spend the most time with the kids in the classrooms.”