The revenue failures in Oklahoma have dominated the news and school operations over the past few months. The first revenue failure was in January with a second one during the month of March. And in between this set of good news, the Oklahoma Legislative session began.
We felt some relief last week when the legislature voted to appropriate $51 million from the Rainy Day Fund to offset some of the previous cuts. Educators however once again are fighting for revenue for our schools and against policies that don’t benefit the majority of Oklahoma children.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Oklahoma has reduced the per student funding in the state formula by 24.2% from 2008-2016. This is adjusted for inflation and is the greatest reduction in the nation.
During this same time period from 2008-2016, Oklahoma enrollment grew by more than 45,000 students. Of these 45,000 students, students qualifying for free/reduced meals; students with special needs; and English Language Learners grew significantly. It appears that while revenue to public schools has declined over the period 2008-2016, the pure number of students as well as the number of students with needs have increased in public education.
The cumulative effect of funding reductions in Tahlequah Public Schools’ state foundation aid is significant from 2008-2009. The cumulative loss in funding from 2008-2009 through this school year for our district is $11 million if funding levels remained static.
As we plan in reaction to the revenue failures and for FY17, our goals are to protect our vision Tigers ROAR (Removing Obstacles Achieving Results) and the classroom as best we can. Of course decisions that we are making today are contingent upon the final state budget and cuts to public education which will be decided at the end of the legislative session in May.
Tahlequah Public Schools depends on over $13 million in foundation aid from the state of Oklahoma which is roughly 41% of our general fund budget of $32 million this school year. We are estimating over $1 million reduction in our foundation aid for the next school year FY 17.
Tahlequah Public Schools is one of the largest employers in the community with over 500 staff members. The district offered a retirement incentive approved in March with 25 employees taking advantage of the proposal. Some of these positions will not be filled and through attrition and by not rehiring temporary employees, there will be a loss of administrative, certified and support staff overall.
Tahlequah Public Schools has one of the largest transportation areas in the state covering much of Cherokee County over 600 square miles. Transporting students is not required; however it is a service that falls under our vision Tigers ROAR. We are happy to transport students from miles away to just a few blocks away from school; but will make some changes beginning next school year. Additional pick up/drop off stops will be established to assist us in being more fuel and time efficient in the future.
Tahlequah had to make an early decision to greatly modify summer school to prepare for June. There will be a small summer school program to assist high school seniors needing credit recovery and who need to pass EOIs in order to graduate. A limited ESY or Extended School Year Program will be provided for special needs students; the Junior Police Academy will be conducted by the district’s School Resource Officers at no cost to the district; and an Art Camp will be held if enrollment is sufficient to fund the camp.
The elementary, middle school and Driver Education summer schools will not be held. The Driver Education summer program has served only 10-15 students on average during the summer but should continue to be offered throughout the school year.
The north and south elementary districts will be dissolved. This will enable us to place students at sites so that class sizes are more equitable throughout the district. With the elementary districts in place currently, Heritage is the only school in the south zone. This structure has made it difficult to maintain adequate class sizes and calls for more staffing when not necessary when there is room to place students elsewhere. Removing the elementary districts will help both educationally and financially.
Our district would like to maintain the after/before school program in partnership with B&G Club. This program will likely see fees attached to participating students to help with maintaining this valuable service for students and families.
Tahlequah Public Schools currently contracts the services of three School-Based Social Workers with DHS. The district has been informed that those positions will no longer be funded through DHS because of budget concerns. Our social workers are integral in meeting the needs of our students and will be such a lost resource! In addition, the district would like to maintain the same level of staffing of school nurses for the upcoming school year in light of the significant medical needs of our students.
Although moving to a 4-day school week provides cost savings to the district, our position is that the savings don’t outweigh the lost benefits to students. Seventy-five percent of our students qualify for free or reduced meals, and many require transportation to school. The loss of instruction, the need for day care for many families, and the loss of meals for students on the food backpack program are not worth the savings at this time.
The district is enhancing our Energy Management systems which should provide significant energy savings. Student activities, field trips, and extra-curricular events could also be affected by the expected $1 million shortfall in state foundation aid next year.
If revenue failures continue over the next school year, the above scenarios will have to be reconsidered. These and possibly other contingencies are required to remain a fiscally solvent school district. These situations have a direct impact on the local economy and our hope is to lessen the impact on student learning and development.
Please join with me in contacting our local legislators to thank them for supporting our schools and education. Representative Mike Brown and Senator Earl Garrison have been steadfast supporters of education and have represented our region in fine fashion! Also, please contact Oklahoma Legislative leadership House Speaker Jeff Hickman (email@example.com) and Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask that they restore Tahlequah’s funding level to the 2008-2009 school year and make funding education our state’s top priority!