Party figures discuss school budget request

A year after Oklahoma teachers rallied at the State Capitol during the 2018 teacher walkout, the Oklahoma State Board of Education is requesting an additional $220 million for the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is hoping to see more dollars for common education in fiscal year 2021, as the Oklahoma State Board of Education approved a budget request of $3.29 billion during a monthly meeting Thursday.

If approved by the Oklahoma Legislature, common education would receive $220 million more than last year, but some officials believe the chances of the whole request being allocated is unlikely.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, chair for the appropriations subcommittee on education, said the state has only so many dollars to spend and legislators will have to see what revenue numbers look like when the Board of Equalization gives a report in January.

"All of the agencies send out their estimate of needs and requests," said Pemberton. "Every year they always ask for quite a bit more than they expect to get. That's pretty standard for all agencies, but there's nothing in there that would not benefit the schools if we have that kind of revenue."

The board of education is seeking increases in several areas of the public school system. $19 million of the increase would go to more school counselors, as the current counselor-to-student ratio is 435 to 1, whereas the recommended ratio by the Americans School Counselor Association is 250 to 1.

"There's no doubt that we need more counselors," said Pemberton. "The money wasn't there last year to do it. We have a lot of mental health issues in the schools and other things, so hopefully we can get some more counselors and bring some of those counselor-to-student ratios down."

Other requested increases include an extra $32 million for flexible benefit allowance, an extra $6 million for instructional materials for social studies and arts programs, and an extra $117 million for "financial support of public schools." Of the $117 million, $25 million would go toward meeting Senate Bill 193's threshold of $100 million to reduce classroom sizes for kindergarteners and first graders.

Pemberton said the Legislature put $74.8 million through the school formal last year, and he hopes to put through an extra "$26.2 million to $30 million this year."

"Then we'll trigger those class size reductions," he said. "It's what the teachers want and also the state department."

If public schools are to reduce class sizes, they'll need more teachers. With more teachers in the state, legislators will have to ensure it has enough dollars to cover teacher benefits.

"So as the number of teachers are increased and school districts hire more staff members, that means there's more cost for the flex benefits, so that's one we'll have to really look at hard, because we have to make sure we cover those insurance costs," said Pemberton. "That's something we've done for years, so it's an obligation of the Legislature."

Also among the budget increase requests is an extra $42 million for "support of students and teachers." Portions of the $42 million would go to increases in alternative education programs, early intervention SoonerStart, support for low-performing schools, the development of formative assessment items to support teachers, computer science training, and much more.

The state was able to save money last year, and while legislators don't expect the same type of revenue figures in January, its anticipated that the state will still have some extra cash to spend. Because of this, Cherokee County Young Republicans Chair Justin Kennedy said it is a good time to increase education funding. Overall, he said he likes the proposal and is glad to see specific issues addressed.

"I like that the list includes funding for more counselors, mental health for kids should be a focus," said Kennedy. "I also like the funding for smaller class sizes and increasing pay for support staff. Reducing class sizes should help take some of the stress off of teachers and help students receive more of the one-on-one time that they need. The $42 million for 'support of teachers and students' should be a great service as well. It gives funds for math and reading programs that I believe would help kids be more career ready than many are currently."

If the entire budget request were to be approved, it would reportedly returns state education funding to 2009 levels. However, Nancy Garber, with Cherokee County Democrats, said that additional school funding is critical and the state is "still behind the curve when it comes to providing for the overall needs of our public school students."

"Statistics show per pupil spending has declined over the past decade," Garber said. "Every dollar the legislature is willing to allocate to its constitutional obligation to fund public education is one step closer to reversing the regressive trend that has kept Oklahoma at the bottom nationwide when it comes to public education. We need to encourage our lawmakers, and commit as concerned citizens to elect lawmakers, who look beyond the one time funding Superintendent Hofmeister is asking for, and identify permanent funding sources that will lead to public school improvements across the board."

But the state has a lot of mouths to feed, leaving people to question what should be a priority among legislators. Cherokee County Libertarian Party Chair Dr. Shannon Grimes, whose in favor of ensuring the wealth is spread out, wants to know what impact the budget request, if fully approved, would have on the state's overall budget.

"Education is very important and despite frequent rhetoric, I don't know anyone against quality education for Oklahomans," he said. "Do we really need these increases? Is the request being made for political points knowing that it will be shot down? I don't know enough details about the budget increase request to speak to the value of any particular part. But the bottom line is the bottom line. All of us favor good education, but we have to look at the whole budget picture and determine what we can actually fund across the state budget. If this budget is approved, does it cause other important parts to [be] cut?"

State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, did not return phone calls by press time.

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