Local schools bracing for budget cuts (Enid News)

By James Neal

Local school districts are bracing for the impact of mid-year budget cuts and worsening projections for the coming year.

With a revenue failure coming after two years of deep cuts, some area districts are anticipating fewer teachers and larger class sizes as budgets shrink.

In the wake of the revenue failure announced Tuesday, the state board of education met Thursday and revised the common education budget to reflect $50.2 million in new cuts. 

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the further cuts to this year’s common education budget will have “an unavoidable impact on students throughout Oklahoma.” 

“These budget cuts will further hobble our state’s ability to meet the needs of children and educate our students,” Hofmeister said. “It’s onerous news for schools as they have now absorbed $84.5 million in unexpected cuts to common education in the last two fiscal years despite great effort to cushion the blow for students during the recent economic downturn.” 

Local school officials still are assessing the probable impact from this week’s announced shortfall and cuts.

Karl White, chief financial officer for Enid Public Schools, said cuts to local schools will depend largely on how the state board of education determines to pass the budget shortfall along to school districts.

White said Enid Public Schools stand to lose approximately $129,000 in funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, “if they only look at the general revenue failure.”

If the shortfalls in dedicated education funds also are passed along to the local level, White said the local cuts for this year “could go up to $582,000.”

The last piece of the puzzle in funding shortfalls comes in the Common Education Technology Revolving Fund.

“Most people who watch things believe it’s been over-estimated by about $10 million,” White said of the technology fund. 

If that projected shortfall pans out, and rolls downhill to the local level, White said Enid’s cuts for this year could swell to $698,000.

While cuts mid-year are difficult, White said the greater concern is what will come with the passage of the 2018 fiscal budget, which will take effect July 1. 

The Oklahoma State Board of Equalization certified Tuesday the state Legislature will have $878 million less to spend than initially projected for the next fiscal year.

White said Enid schools may see a 2 to 6 percent cut in state funding due to that projected state budget shortfall.

Enid Public Schools operates with an annual budget of about $65 million from all revenue sources, which includes about $25 million from state aid. If the state funds drop 2-6 percent next year, Enid schools would lose $500,000 to $1.5 million in funding, respectively.

Amber Graham Fitzgerald, Enid Public Schools human resources and communications director, said the school district will continue to focus on students and provide the best services possible with available funds.

“While there are many unknowns, at least one fact is certain: We will continue to provide the best education possible for our students,” Fitzgerald said. “It is our hope that lawmakers will hold public education funding as harmless as possible and find ways to invest more in Oklahoma’s classrooms, even during this difficult financial time.”

Revenue failures are not unprecedented in Oklahoma. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute there have been six revenue failures since 2000, in budget years 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2016 and now, 2017. 

But two revenue failures in a row, after a deficit in 2015, has many districts facing a shortfall after already implementing significant cuts.

“The main thing right now, since the budget’s already been reduced, this becomes a cash flow situation for a lot of schools,” said Rocky Burchfield, superintendent of Fairview Public Schools.

Coming off an approximate $150,000 budget shortfall last year, Burchfield said he was planning to finish this fiscal year “revenue neutral.”

He said with the newly announced cuts, that probably won’t be the case.

“Depending on what happens between now and the end of the fiscal year,” he said, “we’re probably going to go backwards a little over $50,000.”

The budget shortfalls aren’t a surprise to most school administrators. Burchfield said he told his board to expect a shortfall last June. 

But, with little room left to cut operating costs, Fairview, like many districts, has taken to leaving some faculty positions unfilled.

“It’s not that we didn’t prepare for this,” Burchfield said. “We did, and we had to do it somewhat on the backs of our kids, because we didn’t hire some additional people we needed and wanted for this year because of the fear of this happening.”

Further cuts, Burchfield said, will almost certainly lead to increased class sizes in public schools, a move contrary to one of the common measures of education quality.

“All schools have been cut so much for the last seven or eight years, there’s no further cut that doesn’t affect class size now,” he said. “Every cut now and in the future directly affects how many people we can hire because there’s nowhere else we can do with less.”

Roydon Tilley, superintendent of Chisholm Public Schools, also has been hesitant to fill some positions in anticipation of the budget shortfall.

“We try not to hire any more than we have to,” Tilley said. “Because of how the budget has gone in last few years, we know we’re not going to get the money we’ve had in the past. We’re all very cautious about adding staff members.”

Tilley said his district already is running on a budget that provides $200 per student less than it did in 2008, and staff salaries make up 80-82 percent of the available budget.

“When that much of your budget is in salaries, that’s where you have to go when you get cut,” he said.

Tilley said simply not filling some positions already has resulted in larger class sizes.

“We’re all trying to provide services for kids, but a lot of us are starting to run many more kids in a classroom than we used to,” he said. “I have 31 students in one middle school classroom, and that’s not a good thing.”

Like White and Burchfield, Tilley is more apprehensive of next fiscal year than he is of the cuts this year.

“We have to start making decisions right now for next year, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” he said.

He doesn’t have much hope for the situation improving in the short term.

“As long as we continue to cut revenue streams, it can’t go anywhere but the wrong direction,” Tilley said. “We as a state are not committed to funding education at this point, and that goes for all state services, really.”


Leave a Reply

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