OKLAHOMA – A local policy institute is questioning the management and priorities of schools across the state, after examining financial data.
The Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs published an article Friday afternoon titled ‘Why are school districts sitting on so much cash?‘
“We didn’t think there would be almost $1.9 billion of revenue,” said OCPA President Jonathan Small. “I do think, when you look at the way our funding is spent in K-12 education in Oklahoma, that it’s clear that the priority is not first the most important person, which is the teacher in the classroom.”
The OCPA found schools reported about 23 percent more in revenue than they did in expenditures, with many districts reporting six-figure bank accounts.
Oklahoma City Public Schools and Edmond Public Schools top the list with balances of more than $100 million.
“Are the dollars going to the right place?” Small asked in an interview with NewsChannel 4. “I think, when you see how much is being set aside for building and equipment as opposed to dire needs that teachers have, I think it’s a very fair question.”
Educators though don’t see it the same way and call the article “disheartening.”
“It’s not fair to say to teachers or the public that schools are sitting on cash,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “It’s false to say they have the money available to do the things that they should, because they would if they could.”
Putnam City Spokesman Steve Lindley showed NewsChannel 4 the district’s finances and the “$83 million surplus” the OCPA reported.
About $14 million (which has since shrunk to about $10 million) is available for use in the general fund, he said, though much of it is being saved to pay bills that will be due before property taxes are collected at the end of the year.
Other money is saved in reserves to deal with emergency situations.
“In the financial situation we’re in now, we don’t know what’s coming or when it’s coming,” Lindley said. “We manage our resources very carefully and make the best use of them that we can. And, why would we do anything else?”
Another $11 million was raised with a specific purpose like MAPS or child nutrition or by a specific group like an activity fund or a gift.
That money can not be used for general operations.
And, the lions share of the Putnam City “surplus,” $57 million, are dedicated to paying off voter-approved bond issues.
Lindley said it’s money allocated, even if all the details haven’t been worked out.
He equates it to living on a budget.
“A certain amount of your salary is obligated toward food,” for example, he said. “You don’t know which grocery store you’re going to, you don’t know which restaurant you’re going to eat at, but you know you need food.”
“Those funds are for those projects,” Lindley said of money allocated for bond issues. “They’re not for other things. By law, you can’t send them on salaries. And, in fact, we need to spend them on the things we said we need to spend them on.”
The OCPA would like to see lawmakers remove restrictions on schools, allowing them to direct money where it’s needed most.
Small questions the emphasis placed on taxpayer-funded projects in the first place, citing state-of-the-art athletic facilities as an example.
“A lot of our money ends up going more toward bonds and buildings than it does toward teacher salaries,” he said. “Often, school districts are going to voters asking for increased property tax levies for the purpose of bonding instead of for the purpose of teacher salaries.”
But, Hime counters, voter-approved maintenance projects are almost always needed.
“Many of them are just trying to keep up and make sure our students are in buildings that are the appropriate building to have school in,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of our local schools looking like Taj Mahals. They’re just trying to maintain their buildings, take care of them for the public, which is what they’re expected to do, and offer high-quality education in those buildings.”