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“This is a brutal time for schools,” Districts brace for deeper cuts in state funding

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OKLAHOMA CITY - State budget cuts will hit local school districts the hardest, at least in terms of total dollars, as the state finance secretary orders across-the-board reductions.

Preston Doerflinger ordered all agencies to take an additional four percent cut for the current fiscal year - adding to a three percent cut ordered earlier this year.

For schools, that adds up to nearly $110 million lost - money many districts had already budgeted for.

"We did not think it could get any worse," said Millwood Schools Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods. "We weren't expecting anything as big as four percent. We were expecting around two percent, and something like that this close to the end of the year is going to be pretty hard to manage."

Millwood had already taken some preliminary downsizing steps in anticipation of a tough year, but now the district will likely be crunching numbers and making difficult decisions during a challenging time of year.

"Right now, if we don't have teachers in front of them preparing them for testing, that makes the testing season pretty rough," Robinson-Woods said. "Everything that I'm cutting now is coming directly from salaries. That's the only place I have left to take the dollars for. Or, if I don't take the dollars to salaries now, I will start cutting positions for the fall."

Robinson-Woods said she's already considering not replacing a high school librarian who left to take a promotion.

In other places, the district will try to plug the holes the best it can.

"We remain optimistic,"she said. "What we try to do with teachers is we try to do our best to alleviate what extra we can, so you'll see principals on bus duty, you'll see principals on cafeteria duty but, on a small school such as ours, we don't have extra hands."

In a statement, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister called it a "brutal time for schools."

"A second General Revenue failure means schools will have lost nearly $110 million since the start of the spring semester alone, and that does not take into account next fiscal year, which looks equally bleak. Efforts that districts are making to cope with these cuts today will further impact the next school year, as they are forced to significantly deplete their cash-fund balances.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education has worked hard to minimize the cuts’ impact on instruction, but we are no longer able to soften the blow. Many rural districts indicate they will immediately initiate a four-day school week for the remainder of the school year. Educators are facing heartbreaking decisions that ultimately will affect students in the classroom. Our schoolchildren are the ones who will pay the steepest price."

 Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger took a shot at lawmakers in a written statement, urging them to pass a budget that makes permanent fixes.

“These midyear cuts are already into the bone at some agencies, and next year’s cuts may go right through the bone unless serious actions are taken. The governor and legislative leaders recognize the severity of the situation and are working on solutions, but I’m convinced there are still rank and file legislators who have yet to grasp the seriousness of the challenge at hand. This deepened cut isn’t pleasant and should serve as a reality check and call to action for anyone who thinks this problem fixes itself with short term budget gimmicks. This is a long term problem that will require tough, long term solutions.”

Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond), who chairs the appropriations committee, told NewsChannel 4 his colleagues are starting to understand the gravity of the situation.

"Until you start seeing the actual dollars being cut, I don't think the members have understood that we're not making these things up," he said. "We need to take a serious look at a lot of our tax credits and exemptions. I don't think we can cut our way out of this budget without putting responsible budgetary reforms on the table."

Jolley wants the legislature to stop using one-time sources of funding in the budget, in addition to taking a closer look at tax breaks and exemptions.

"And, if we're not willing to make those reforms, we're going to have to make dramatic and drastic cuts over and above the ones that have already been made, because of the revenue not coming in as projected," he said.

A revenue failure occurs when the state is not bringing in enough money to pay for the services it is providing - be it at the health department, the insurance commission, the corrections department or anyplace else.

Republicans in the legislature place most of the blame for the revenue failure on a struggling oil industry.

Jolley said low oil prices and layoffs have in turn pushed down state sales tax and income tax revenue.

Democrats are more inclined to blame Republicans for mismanagement and granting tax cuts at inappropriate times.

But, if the budget isn't put on more solid footing, Jolley is worried about the state's long-term financial health.

"Unless we see a rapid and dramatic recovery in oil and gas revenues, and I mean very soon, I think we're going to see this problem continue not only into this coming budget year but into the budget year after that," Jolley said.

Complete list of cuts below.

reductions-by-agency