OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Education is explaining her reasoning for why she did not compile a list regarding educational spending at the request of Governor Mary Fallin.
In November 2017, Fallin issued an executive order that directed the State Board of Education to “compile a list of every public school district that spends less than 60 percent of their budget on instructional expenditures.” It was expected to be done by Sept. 1, 2018 and every year thereafter.
Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the order came as a surprise, because much of information that was requested was already available on their 'transparency website'.
“That was — make no mistake about it — about mandating forced consolidation,” Superintendent Hofmeister told News 4 on Monday. “That authority rests with our Legislature, and there’s authority for decisions how classroom and school expenses are spent that is part of local elected school boards. So, I am not about to circumvent that authority that is already in place in our Constitution, and that is part of why we said, ‘No, we are not going to comply.'”
Hofmeister said, ultimately, her decision came down to what she felt was right for students in the state's 519 school districts.
“Just a textbook is not enough to be securing learning for students. You need people, you need teachers, you need various supports, certain extra help in some situations for some learners and all of that is something matters. To somehow think that we could make a broad sweeping decision that is going to affect the lives of Oklahomans and families, all across the state, we are not going to do that,” Hofmeister said.
Dr. James Machell, dean of the College of Education at the University of Central Oklahoma, took a hard look at the issue in a recent policy paper.
"We continue to ask for more resources that are needed for schools, but there’s a limit in how much we can continue to increase taxes," Machell said. "Part of my interest was in exploring possible ways to save money that’s being spent in schools already."
Machell said there's about five other states with the same number of students as Oklahoma; however, Oklahoma has about three times the number of school districts. Machell also compared superintendents' salaries.
"We have almost 30 school districts in the state that have fewer than 100 students. We have almost 300 school districts in the state that have fewer than a thousand students," he said.
According to Machell, a rough calculation found the state could save more than $20 million through consolidation of some smaller districts.
"You’ll find that school leaders and community leaders really have a hard time with the idea of losing their identity if they lose their school district, except I do think it must be examined since our state is not a wealthy state," he said. "We’re at a time where we need to find waste to put more resources in the classrooms."
Even so, Hofmeister said consolidation is not a one-size-fits-all issue.
"We can look at other states, and we know that Arkansas recently did a state level consolidation and their costs for administrative costs actually increased. It depends on why someone would be doing that," she said. "We should always be for efficiencies and for being extremely responsible with taxpayer dollars. The most important thing though is to respect those at the local level who are working with children at the local school and know their needs best."
On Sunday night, Superintendent Hofmeister took to Twitter and stated "Gov. Fallin ordered me to create a list of schools that could be targeted for forced consolidation, but I refusedcreate a list of schools that could be targeted for forced consolidation, but I refused."
In response, Fallin responded with this statement:
“That’s not true. The executive order asked the State Board of Education to compile a list of every public school district that spends less than 60 percent of their budget on instructional expenditures and directs the board to ‘consider and make recommendations for administrative consolidation or annexation of school districts.’ We just increased public school funding by 19.7 percent and improved teacher pay to 29th in the country and second in the region. It is not unreasonable to ask for a better understanding of how these taxpayer-education dollars are spent, which is the intent of Executive Order 2017-39.”