The $100 million question (Sequoyah County Times)

By Meghan Partain

School administrators are once again scrambling to make last-minute adjustments to school-year budgets in light of recent news that the state of Oklahoma will end Fiscal Year 2016 with a surplus of over $100 million.

The news came last weekend, when David Blatt, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Policy Institute reported that the legislature will end its 2016 session with a surplus after months of across-the-board agency cuts. It was also just four days after the State Board of Education approved $38.2 million in mandated cuts to the Public Schools Activities Fund, including the entire $33 million textbook allotment.

According to Blatt, the Board of Equalization is required to verify the amount of revenue the state expects to acquire for the rest of the fiscal year. The Constitution does not allow more than 95 percent of the expected revenue to be allotted to state agencies.

If the current projected revenue falls under the expected amount, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) declares a budget shortfall and cuts must be made until the number falls within that 95 percent. Overall, Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger cut state agencies by seven percent in order to adhere to the Constitution’s 95 percent cushion standard.

The situation in Oklahoma—a cocktail of falling oil prices, a weak economy and tax breaks—led to a shortfall that was first announced in December, before the legislative session even began. Cuts were made in an attempt to stabilize the budget, but shortfalls remained when the budget was reexamined in February and again in March.

The surplus occurred because Doerflinger’s seven percent cut was deeper than necessary.

“It turns out some unnecessary pain was inflicted,” Blatt said.

The question now is what will happen to the extra money, which could be as high as $166.6 million. After the numbers become official at the end of Fiscal Year 2016 next Thursday, Oklahoma legislators could choose to return the money to the agencies that were cut or they could call a special session to discuss how to use it in other ways.

For Superintendent of Muldrow Public Schools Ron Flanagan, the waiting game has become an all-too-familiar part of the job.

“I learned a long time ago when you can’t control something, you just deal with it,” Flanagan said.

To deal with this latest blow in a year full of bad budget news, Flanagan took the state’s line item report and applied those cuts by percentage to his own school. For Muldrow’s budget, Flanagan said, the cuts amount to about $125,000.

He said he had already bought some instructional materials before the newest round of cuts were made, because they simply had to be replaced. Consumable textbook materials—like workbooks—are meant to be replaced every year, Flanagan said.

Public school administrators will not receive their first allotments for the 2016-2017 school years until mid-July, but Flanagan remains adamant that the goal of the Muldrow staff and faculty will remain the same until things turn around.

“We’re going to continue to provide our kids with the best education possible and go from there,” Flanagan said. “I’ve never had a positive number on my budget. Things have to get better. We can’t continue to bleed the way we’re bleeding.”

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