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Oklahoma Liberals: Bloat Is Good as Long as It’s Our Bloat

One of the more contentious issues in Oklahoma politics has always been funding for education and this year is certainly no exception. And by ‘funding’ I do mean teacher salaries. There seems to be more of a clamor this year for teachers to get raises and even some Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at providing salary increases to teachers without raising taxes. It’s too early in the legislative session to know how those proposals will turn out, but even if they are passed and succeed, it won’t be enough to satisfy those in the education field and their friends in the legislature, the Democrats.

Education funding seems to be a continual battle between the liberals and the conservatives in the legislature, with the liberals always wanting more and more money to go to education and the conservatives knowing that the state can’t afford the level of funding that the liberals want. Back in 2010, the teachers union was successful in getting State Question 744 put on the November ballot, which would have dramatically increased the amount of funding Oklahoma spends on education. If passed, 744 would have required Oklahoma to raise education spending per student to the average of the seven surrounding states. Even the left-leaning Oklahoma Policy Institute projected that passage of 744 would have mandated almost $900 million more to be spent on education by the third year. That kind of increase would have required a huge tax increase on Oklahomans or severe cuts to state agencies. Fortunately, the public was wise enough to reject 744.

One of the big education issues this year is consolidation of school districts. House Bill 2824 by Rep. Lee Denney would allow the State Board of education to forcefully consolidate rural elementary schools, which would eliminate administration costs for the consolidated school districts.

KFOR – The leaders of those schools estimate it would cut at least $9 million in administrative salaries.

“It’s not just about the money,” said Oakdale Public Schools Superintendent Kim Lanier, who would likely lose his job if his district were consolidated. “Our bottom line is not measured in dollars and cents. The bottom line is we’re here to educate.”

The bill authorizes the board to publish a list every six years including all elementary school districts that are eligible for consolidation.

Schools could only become exempt if they receive an average grade of B- or higher on the annual school reports or if each school site in the district is located more than 30 miles from the closest school site of another district.

No buildings would be required to be closed.

Multiple superintendents would not be allowed.

Yesterday, House Bill 2824 failed in committee by a vote of 3 to 8. 

About an hour ago as I type this, News 9 here in Oklahoma City has reported that Governor Fallin and the State Board of Equalization are set to certify that the state will have a budget hole next year of $1.1 billion, with the amount being closer to $1.3 billion when one-time funds are factored in. Apparently, even when the budget situation in our state is this bad, saving wherever possible is out of the question if it involves being more efficient with education spending. After HB2824 was voted down in committee, State Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman) took to Twitter to announce the vote and she had an interesting exchange with Steve Lackmeyer, a columnist and reporter in Oklahoma City.

And there we have it. Bloat in government is good as long as it’s bloat that supports liberals. And yes, we can afford the inefficient bloat if we’d just stop cutting taxes.

Rep. Virgin might want to take a look at Rep. David Brumbaugh’s article, Stop Blaming Tax Cuts for Oklahoma’s Fiscal Problems.

I believe that if it was put to a vote of the people, consolidation of school districts would receive a majority vote. Back in 2002, Republican Steve Largent was running for Governor and he made consolidation one of his main campaign issues. He barely lost the election to Democrat Brad Henry, but Largent and conservative independent Gary Richardson combined for almost 58% of the vote. Fourteen years later, Oklahoma is a much more conservative state and power has shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans. Consolidation of school districts is not something that should be abandoned.

I wonder if those who supported State Question 744 would be open to another form of averaging. Instead of forcing Oklahoma to increase education spending to the average of
the per-pupil spending for the surrounding seven states, perhaps we should modify the number of school districts in Oklahoma to equal the average number of districts in the surrounding seven states. This would mean Oklahoma would drop from 544 to 444 school districts and the number of students per district would increase from 1,253 to 2,953. But of course, the teachers union and the Democrats would never go for that.

An unbiased examination of Oklahoma’s school districts reveals some very wasteful spending. I have read of superintendents in tiny school districts who tell of mowing grass, vacuuming halls, landscaping and cleaning as justification for their superintendent salary. With the average superintendent salary in Oklahoma hovering above $90,000 per year, this doesn’t seem like a very good use of the people’s tax dollars.

School district size is also an issue that should be addressed.

Oklahoma Watch – The population of Le Flore County in southeastern Oklahoma is less than a tenth of Oklahoma County’s population. Yet Le Flore has 17 school districts compared to Oklahoma County’s 15.

At Reydon Public Schools in western Oklahoma, the superintendent makes $116,000 a year, including benefits, to oversee one of the smallest districts in the state, at 124 students. That’s $936 per student, compared to $6 for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, the highest paid superintendent this year, at $260,000.

Oklahoman – In this budget environment, it’s difficult to defend paying for a superintendent at every dependent school site, especially given the small student populations and high administrative salaries involved.

At least one superintendent at a dependent district receives more than $141,000 in total compensation, and many other dependent school superintendents have total compensation hovering around the six-figure range.

The superintendents at the five dependent districts in Creek County are paid nearly $500,000 in combined total compensation, according to Oklahoma Department of Education records. Put another way, simply eliminating those superintendent positions would free up enough money to give 500 teachers an immediate $1,000 pay raise.

If administrative positions were eliminated at most dependent districts through administrative sharing, hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings could be quickly generated without closing schools or generating negative impact for students. The districts could also share central services, such as payroll, further enhancing savings that could be put back into the classroom.

It seems pretty clear that the teachers union and its supporters in the legislature are not serious about improving education here in Oklahoma. Their main focus seems to be on protecting the jobs of unneeded administrators and maintaining a bloated, inefficient educational system at the expense of the students who are supposed to be served by that system. Until legislators like Rep. Virgin have the courage to stand up to the teachers union and do something about the bloat in our educational system, I will never believe they are serious about improving things.

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