Okla. ed board wants use of Rainy Day Fund now

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 8:15 PM

Cuts in state funding for education mean teachers at one northeastern Oklahoma school now must clean their own classrooms while their superintendent scrubs the toilets. A superintendent in a neighboring county is considering laying off five teachers. Yet another is asking veteran teachers to consider early retirement.

State Board of Education members consider the situation dire enough that they voted Tuesday to call for the immediate use of money from Oklahoma's Rainy Day Fund, essentially asking Gov. Brad Henry to convene a special session of the Legislature, which would be required to tap those funds.

The board also approved what state Superintendent Sandy Garrett termed a "bare-bones" budget request for the next fiscal year of about $2.798 billion. That's about $225.8 million more than was appropriated to common education during the current fiscal year.

But what was appropriated and the amount schools are receiving are far apart because of declining state revenues, which have come in below expectations for 10 straight months. State financial officials have already ordered 5 percent cuts in budget allocations to state agencies through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The situation is even worse for schools, Garrett said, because of declines in a revolving state fund set aside for education. Revenues from what's known as the House Bill 1017 Fund are down 15.9 percent, or $33.8 million, from estimates for the fiscal year to date.

"We haven't seen that decline, ever," Garrett said. "That's why we're extremely concerned."

All told, state schools have seen a 7.1 percent funding cut, she said.

Henry already has said it's likely the state will need to tap its Rainy Day Fund, which has about $600 million, to make it through the rest of the fiscal year. The Legislature's next regular session will be in February, but board member Tim Gilpin of Tulsa said schools can't wait until then for financial relief.

"Who will explain to the third-grader, the sixth-grader, the sophomore in high school, that they just missed out on resources?" Gilpin said. "Our public schools are in an emergency now."

Chad Hance, superintendent of the Amber-Pocasset district in Grady County, told the board he's having to ask longtime teachers about retiring. "I feel like I'm going to have to cheat our students" by doing so, he said.

Jeff Taylor of the Pretty Water district in Creek County said school cleaning duties have fallen to himself and teachers.

"They don't mind doing all those things, but they shouldn't have to," Taylor said.

In the Cleveland district in Pawnee County, Superintendent John Weaver said layoffs are a distinct possibility "if the Legislature does not do something now." Teacher salaries might also be cut, he said.

"We are talking about some schools not being able to make payroll or closing their doors," Garrett said.

After the board meeting _ but unrelated to the board's action _ Henry unveiled a budget plan and said a January special session might be possible, although he didn't specifically address the school board's request.

Henry spokesman Paul Sund said that while the governor "agrees that we need to tap the Rainy Day Fund to protect education and other vital services," the support of legislative leaders also would be needed "and we do not have that at this time."

Neither House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, nor State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, specifically addressed the school board's action in statements they issued after the governor's announcement.