Atoka Public Schools Schools is a district that serves 996 students in K-12, employing 70 teachers and professional staff and 127 total employees. Since 2009, it has seen its funding decrease by $500,000. This year, it is one of 100 school districts, primarily in rural Oklahoma, that have gone to a four-day school week to cut costs.

While we often associate state government with the State Capitol and Oklahoma City, in reality, the money spent by the state flows out across Oklahoma’s 77 counties and nearly 600 towns and cities. In nearly every community, state dollars are spent on grade schools and colleges; roads and bridges; hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, and substance abuse counselors; parks, historical centers  and libraries; correctional facilities, in-home care providers, agricultural inspectors, and myriad other public and private entities.

This year, Oklahoma legislators are facing another massive budget shortfall, the result of a weak economy and short-sighted policy choices made in prior years. Recently, House Appropriation Chair Rep. Leslie Osborn asked all state agencies to lay out how they would try to absorb cuts of 14.5 percent. Many echoed the sentiments of DHS Director Ed Lake, who stated that “the reduction scenarios at almost every level depicted can be accurately described as ranging from the terrible to the unthinkable.”

All of Oklahoma would suffer under cuts of any size, but cuts would have an outsized impact on Oklahoma’s small towns and rural communities. Public institutions – the local public school and vo-tech center, the county health department and DHS office, the local library, state park, and correctional facility – and businesses that count on public dollars, such as nursing homes, hospitals, home health agencies, substance abuse clinics, roads contractors, are among the largest employers in small towns across the state. They are critical to their town’s prosperity, and in some cases, very survival.  As one high school principal stated in a recent article that focused on the disproportionate impact the state’s budget crunch is having on rural schools, “This town has its schools and a gas station, that’s it. So when you hit the schools like this, you really hit the entire community.”

To explore the impact of state budget cuts on local communities, we’ve chosen two small cities as examples — Altus and Atoka. These happen to be the hometowns of Oklahoma’s two most powerful legislators, Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz and House Speaker Charles McCall. Altus and Atoka are also, in many ways, typical of the small cities and towns most legislators represent. Altus, with an estimated 2015 population of 19,214, is Oklahoma’s 22nd largest city and is the county seat of Jackson County in Southwestern Oklahoma. Atoka, with a population of 3,065, ranks 107th and is the county seat of Atoka County in Southeastern Oklahoma.

We do not yet know what next year’s budget will look like, and we cannot say with certainty how agencies will handle budget cuts. But here is a partial overview of the presence that state government and state dollars have in Altus and Atoka, and some of the ways that cuts might impact these communities.

Small town hospitals and nursing homes most likely to close if Medicaid is cut further

Medicaid is an important health care program in Atoka and Altus. In  Atoka County, Medicaid paid providers $11.6 million in FY 2016 and covered 30 percent of the population; in Jackson County, it paid $17 million and  covered 27 percent of the population, according to the annual report of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA). Medicaid has already cut provider reimbursement rates from 100 percent to just 86.75 percent of what Medicare pays. OHCA says that a 14.5 percent budget cut would force them to cut reimbursement rates for all providers by an another 25 to 30 percent and eliminate such services as organ transplants and dialysis.

This would have a devastating impact on health care access, especially in small communities with only a few providers. The head of the state’s nursing home association predicts that “very few homes, if any, will be able to keep their doors open.” In Atoka, the Atoka Manor, a 96-bed facility, and in Altus, the English Village Manor, a 128-bed nursing home, and Plantation Village Nursing Center, a 158-bed facility, would be at risk.

Since 2011, at least nine rural hospitals have filed for bankruptcy in Oklahoma, including Atoka County Medical Center; with further cuts to Medicaid reimbursement, more facilities in small cities would be at risk of closing or restricting services. Residents of Atoka can currently access some services at Atoka Memorial Hospital and ABC Medical Clinic. In Altus, local facilities include the Jackson County Memorial Hospital , Quartz Mountain Medical Center, Valir Outpatient Center, and Altus Dialysis Center.

Access to mental health and substance abuse services in Altus and Atoka would also be affected by budget cuts. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services warns of 37 percent provider rate cuts, resulting in service cuts to 176,000 Oklahomans. In FY 2016, the Department served 1,067 clients in Atoka County with mental health and substance abuse issues and 945 clients in Jackson County. In Altus, Red Rock Behavioral Health Services and Southwestern Youth Services provide alcohol and drug treatment and outpatient mental health services; in Atoka, YCO OKC, Inc. provides outpatient mental health.

Atoka and Altus also house the county offices for both the Health Department and Department of Human Services, which could face job layoffs and even office closures as the result of budget cuts. Southwestern Youth Services, which serves adolescents in the juvenile justice system and is funded largely through the Office of Juvenile Affairs, is located in Altus.

Rural schools and colleges especially struggle with budget cuts

Oklahoma public schools, colleges and universities have already undergone deep cuts in recent years and are now bracing for more. The State Department of Education warns that a 15 percent budget cut would force it to reduce state aid funding by 20 percent. As a recent survey by the Oklahoma State School Board Association makes clear, more cuts would lead to teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, elimination of arts, athletics, and other programs, and more districts putting strains on families by moving to four-day school weeks.

“This town has its schools and a gas station, that’s it. So when you hit the schools like this, you really hit the entire community.”

As already noted, Atoka Public Schools has already moved to a four-day school week. If its budget is cut deeper, the district will be forced to increase class sizes, reduce payroll, and eliminate or reduce arts programs, according to the OSSBA survey.

Altus Public Schools served 3,549 students in 2015-16 and received $11.8 million in state aid dollars, or $3,316 per student. The district operates six schools, including an early childhood center, employing 246 teachers and professional staff and 426 total employees. As a result of impact aid funding and other factors, the district is in better financial shape than many and is not looking at shortening the school week or eliminating programs, according to Superintendent Roger Hill. But this year it closed two schools and eliminated 32 positions.

Residents of Altus and Atoka also enjoy access to local vocational centers and community colleges. Altus is home to both Southwest Technology Center, with an enrollment of 2,291 students, and Western Oklahoma State College, with 2,076 students. WOSC, the smallest of the state’s public colleges, has seen its state funding reduced by some $1.1 million, or 20 percent over the past three years, while tuition has increased by 23 percent. Cost-cutting measures have included eliminating staff positions, degree programs, courses, financial aid, and academic support. Atoka is home to  one of the campuses of Kiamichi Technology Center; it serves the communities of Atoka and Coal County and offers courses to high school students from the towns of Atoka, Caney, Coalgate, Stringtown, Tushka, Wapanucka, Cottonwood, Harmony, and Lane. 

Loss of state parks and museums would end small communities’ biggest attractions

Oklahoma is justly proud of its statewide network of state parks, which provides recreational opportunities for camping, hiking, boating and fishing to Oklahomans from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the Department of Tourism  and Recreation, which has seen state funding cut by 38 percent since 2009, is now considering closing half of its state parks. Among the 16 parks on the target list are McGee Creek State Park, located 23 miles away from Atoka, and Great Plains State Park, 30 miles from Altus. Park closures would affect not just state employees but nearby businesses, some of which count on state parks for the lion’s share of their business.

“Among the 16 parks that would be targeted for closing with more budget cuts are McGee Creek State Park, located 23 miles away from Atoka, and Great Plains State Park, 30 miles from Altus.”

The Oklahoma Historical Society has indicated that it could be forced to close six of the twelve museums it operates across the state. The Historical Society currently operates the Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus and the Atoka Museum and Memorial. Like state parks, museums boost local economies by providing jobs and drawing tourists.

The Oklahoma Arts Council is another cultural agency that is important for local communities. The Arts Council has seen state funding cut by over 40 percent since 2009. This year, through its Community Arts program, Arts Learning in Communities, and Arts Education in School, the Council provided 457 grants to 245 organizations in 80 communities, 41 percent of which were in rural areas and small towns. Three cultural organizations based in Altus – the Shortgrass Arts and Humanities Council, Southern Prairie Library Society and Western Trail Historical Society – received grants totaling $17,075 in FY 2016. This state funding is often vital to receiving matching federal and private support.

Small towns most likely to lose drivers license exam sites, see big cuts to courts and first responders

Budget cuts would also have an impact on public safety and law enforcement in communities such as Altus and Atoka. The Department of Public Safety states that if its budget is cut 15 percent, employees would be furloughed, a hiring freeze would be put in place, and some employees would likely lose their jobs, which “places citizens at increased risk, local law enforcement at risk and our troopers’ lives at risk.” DPS warns it might close two-thirds of its drivers license exam sites across the state. The closure of the Altus office would force Altus residents to travel to Lawton, 56 miles away, while for Atoka residents, closing the Durant office would leave Ada, 47 miles away, as the closest office. 

Local communities would also feel the strains of greater burdens on the criminal justice system. Responding to a survey of District Attorneys, the DA over Jackson County, Ken Darby, states that 10 or 15 percent budget cuts would force them to furlough or lay off staff, as well as stop contributing to their Drug Court Program and Drug Task Force. The DA over Atoka County, Emily Redman, indicates that a 15 percent funding reduction will lead to  furloughs up to 23 days per year or loss of employees. “A furlough plan will result in the closure of our office to the public during the traditional work week and will likely result in the District Attorney being  forced to restrict the type of cases our office accepts for prosecution,” she writes. Cuts to the budgets of District Courts, Indigent Defense System, Bureau of Narcotics, State Bureau of Investigation and other agencies will also affect the ability of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes in communities across Oklahoma.

This is far from an exhaustive list of institutions and businesses in Altus and Atoka operated or funded by state government. Budget cuts would also impact road and bridge maintenance, sewer treatment systems, public libraries, and more.  Cuts would have a serious impact on jobs, health, safety, and quality of life in communities large and small across Oklahoma.  That should be of grave concern to Sen. Schulz, Rep. McCall and every one of their colleagues.