State question regarding school funding comes with praise, criticism

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There has been a mix of both praise and criticism on a Legislature-approved state question on school funding which will now be before voters in November.

Governor Mary Fallin announced Thursday, an election proclamation placing State Question 801 on the November ballot. If approved, it would give local school boards the option to use existing property tax revenue for use in the classroom, such as teacher pay and textbooks, without raising taxes. Revenue is currently primarily used for building funds.

The state question passed during this legislative session as Senate Joint Resolution 70. It was approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives in April by a vote 57-34 and later approved by the Senate in May. However, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) said this won't benefit schools.

OSSBA executive director Shawn Hime said schools across the state are already able to spend most, if not all, of the money earmarked for building funds.

"While we love flexibility, this is not going to be a solution to help schools have more money that they’re just sitting on or that they can’t spend on salaries or other things," Hime said. "If a school did choose to take this money and put it in a recurring cost, an annual cost…then what do you do when you need a new roof? What do you do when your carpet wears out – just like in our home, we have to continue to take care of that maintenance and upkeep and if we’re not doing it with the building fund then they have the funds to take care of it?"

Dr. April Grace, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools, said the measure would offer flexibility but it would not necessarily free up any new money.

"We don’t have enough to do everything we need to do. We always have ongoing maintenance repairs, facility issues that we need to deal with…roof repair, HVAC units," Dr. Grace said. "There are all kinds of issues we’re constantly dealing with in our facilities with the age of the school buildings that many of us have."

Overall, Dr. Hime said though he believes lawmakers had good intentions, there could be some unintended consequences if State Question 801 passes.

"Oklahoma is trailing our peers in investment in education on just day to day operations of about $1,700 dollars per student. If you add in the capital improvement stuff, the building money now we’re trailing by $2,300 so we’re not getting as much building money as other states to start with," he said. "We are only one of four states that gets zero dollars from our state to our buildings so this is that local property tax money, but that’s all they get to take care of their buildings."

On Thursday, the Oklahoma Education Association said the state question would create a funding disparity between the state's richest and poorest community.

However, the criticism has been met with some praise from Oklahoma Achieves, an education initiative of the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

“It is hard to believe a teacher’s union opposes an effort to put more money in the classroom. SQ 801 gives local school boards flexibility to use existing money in the classroom for things like teacher pay, technology and textbooks without raising taxes," executive director Jennifer Monies said in a statement. "This measure doesn’t require school districts to change anything unless it makes sense for their local community.”

In a statement to News 4, Deer Creek Schools superintendent Ranet Tippens said they were "strongly opposed" to the state question:

"State Question 801 would amend the state constitution, which currently prohibits the use of building funds for most recurring operational costs like teacher pay. State Question 801 does not provide any new revenue for schools.

Oklahoma school districts don't have excess building fund money going unused. In fact, most districts like Deer Creek have long lists of deferred maintenance due to lack of building funds. Deer Creek along with a large majority of schools does not receive the funding needed to pay for cleaning, maintenance repairs, utilities, technology and property insurance currently designated by law to be paid from he building fund. Deer Creek Schools have grown 300+ students annually for the past 15 years resulting in great need for square footage, desks, chairs and resources each year. While we are grateful for strong community support, Deer Creek’s bonding capacity and building fund struggle to meet that need. Oklahoma is one of only four states that doesn’t have state-dedicated funding for buildings so districts are heavily reliant on local funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

Oklahoma must create a long-term revenue plan to reach the regional average in per-student investment so schools can hire additional teaching staff to reduce class sizes and provide the necessary resources to ensure an exemplary educational experience for all students. Oklahoma must not sacrifice maintenance of buildings, many of which are in decline due to limited building fund revenue, for reoccurring operations. State Question 801 will not provide any new funding. State question 801 will result in an increase in deferred maintenance and school building decline. State question 801 will only give flexibility to those school districts with already high per pupil funding due to high ad valorem business revenue. Ad valorem funding is already an inequitable source of funding for schools. State question 801 will only exacerbate those inequities in Oklahoma schools.

As I frequently communicated during he legislative session to legislators and the governor including state audited data of all school districts, State Question 801 is a grave mistake for Oklahoma Public Schools."

Dr. Sean McDaniel with Oklahoma City Public Schools said they appreciate the effort to provide budget flexibility given the underfunding districts face year after year, however it will not provide any additional dollars to their bottom line.

"We encourage our legislative leaders to continue to focus on adequately funding our schools to give our students the resources they deserve," Dr. McDaniel said.

Dr. Hime said he recommends voters to speak with their local school boards to get a better understanding of how this will effect their day-to-day operations before the election.

The deadline for the governor to sign election proclamations for state questions to be placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot is Aug. 27.