Help Wanted: Where the skills gap and budget gap collide (News OK)

By Brianna Bailey

As Oklahoma tries to shore up its educational standards and prepare more students for the workforce, it’s also trying to do it with less money.

State appropriations for Oklahoma students have declined by 5.07 percent over the past five years, while average enrollment has grown by 5.5 percent, according to The Oklahoman’s analysis of Oklahoma State Department of Education data.    

The numbers show that appropriations to support schools declined from $1.98 billion in the 2010 fiscal year to $1.87 billion for the 2015 fiscal year. The numbers do not include appropriations for teacher retirement funds and benefits.

Adding in benefits and teacher retirement contributions, state education appropriations rose slightly from $2.43 billion in 2010 to $2.45 billion in 2015, a 0.82 percent funding increase over the past five years.

Oklahoma students fall further behind in reading and math proficiency as state funding for education shrinks, said Gene Perry, policy director for the think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute. 

“Even in years where the Legislature has done large cuts in some areas and has tried to protect education funding in some way, that was not actually enough to keep pace with inflation and rising enrollment,” Perry said. “If you look at what we are asking schools to do, we are not funding them at the level for them to do that from year to year.”

Almost half of Oklahoma school districts expect to increase class sizes and about one-third of school leaders said their schools likely will offer fewer courses this school year, according to a survey conducted in August by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. 

With Oklahoma facing another gaping hole in the state budget next fiscal year, common education could face either cuts or another year with no funding increase. 

Early projections show the state could be facing anywhere from a $600 million to $1.2 billion funding gap for the 2017 fiscal year.

“It definitely doesn’t look good,” Perry said. 

Gov. Mary Fallin launched Oklahoma Works during her 2015 State of the State Address to improve the state’s educational system to better prepare students for the workforce, addressing the so-called skills gap. 

By 2020, only about 37 percent of Oklahoma adults are projected to have some level of post-secondary education, while 64 percent of Oklahoma jobs are projected to require post-secondary education. 

“This program is designed to realign our education and work-skill training systems to better meet the needs of both students and employers,” Fallin said. 

Alex Weintz, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Oklahoma Works hopes to forge more partnerships with the state’s business community. 

Special Coverage: Oklahoma Help Wanted

Although the program does not touch on funding for public schools, Fallin also supports increasing spending on education, Weintz said. 

“Funding for schools is going to come from the appropriations process and Oklahoma Works is separate from the appropriations process,” Weintz said. “Oklahoma Works is an alignment of education and workforce needs and getting students ready for the skills they need.” 

Fallin is in the process of holding nine public meetings across the state in conjunction with the Oklahoma State Chamber with business leaders and educators as part of the Oklahoma Works initiative.

“We’ve really succeeded in starting a dialogue between those two communities,” Weintz said. “We’ve seen teachers and business leaders who are interested and engaged and we’ve really been hoping for a big payoff for Oklahoma students.”  

Taking state, federal and local funding into account, spending on K-12 education in Oklahoma has actually increased from $7.1 billion in 2008 to $8.4 billion in 2014, according to Fallin’s office.

While early projections point to a sizable hole in next year’s state budget, it’s still too soon to say how education funding will fare, Weintz said.

“What I can say is that education is going to be a top priority for the governor, but we also know that next year is going to be a challenging budget year,” Weintz said.

Schools brace for cuts

Steve Lindley, communications director for Putnam City Schools, said considering the district’s sizable enrollment growth over the past five years, the money from state appropriations should have increased significantly as well, only it hasn’t. 

“If our district were funded like it was in 2009, there would be an extra $10 million a year to work with, but that’s not the case,” Lindley said.

From 2009 to 2014, enrollment in Putnam City Schools grew by 747 students, Lindley said. 

“That’s like adding a middle school,” he said. 

The Putnam City District is fortunate in that it has strong fund balance and has not had to increase class sizes or make other cuts — for now, Lindley sad. 

“We can see the train on the track and know it’s coming this way, and know a lot of school districts can too,” Lindley said. “It’s not something we can continue for a long time.”

Joe Siano, superintendent of Norman Public Schools, said his district has tried to keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. The district has cut back on some janitorial services and has lost some staff by attrition. 

“If you look at it from a funding standpoint, in 2008, we were being given $3,740 per student for state appropriations, and today we are getting $3,390 per student,” Siano said. “For our district, that amounts to $5.3 million less.”

State appropriations make up about 57 percent of Norman Public Schools’ budget. The money goes to salaries and almost everything but the school district’s capital improvements. Wages, including teachers’ pay, are the district’s largest expense, at about 92 percent of the budget.

When state appropriations don’t go up, it’s just like cutting funding for public schools, because costs go up each year, Siano said. 

“Just like everyone’s business in the world, the cost of everything goes up, whether it’s fuel for buses, insurance, utilities — that piece of inflation is really key.” 

University of Oklahoma President David Boren is leading the charge for a one-cent sales tax increase to help fund Oklahoma public schools.

Boren projects the sales tax increase would raise about $615 million a year. The initiative would first have to gather enough signatures for a statewide ballot measure.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.