The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 31, 2013

Lawmakers mulling over how much money to give to common education

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

— While Oklahoma legislators have spent much of the session so far publicly debating school safety and whether to allow armed teachers in schools, the discussion educators and administrators really are interested in is taking place behind closed doors: how much money common education will receive in next year’s budget.

Funding for public schools in Oklahoma is one of many contentious education-related issues being hammered out by legislative leaders this year, but an agreement on how much money will go to public schools this year hasn’t been reached.

Rep. Scott Martin, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said last week officials with the House, Senate and governor’s office are nearing consensus on a supplemental budget proposal for select agencies to finish out the fiscal year that ends June 30, but no final decision has been made.

“We’re very close, but we’re not ready to announce anything just yet,” Martin said Friday.

Martin said a supplemental funding agreement will have to take into account the overall budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

State Superintendent Janet Barresi has asked lawmakers for nearly $40 million to finish out the current fiscal year, mostly to pay for recently enacted legislative mandates like the new Achieving Classroom Excellence, or ACE, end-of-instruction tests and new reading proficiency requirements. Also included in her request is $8.5 million for increased costs of teacher health benefits and nearly $6 million to help districts cover the estimated increase of nearly 10,000 new students since the end of the last school year.

However, Fallin’s executive budget only included a request for $8.5 million in supplemental funding to help pay for the costs of the flexible benefit allowance for public school teachers and staff. The actual costs of those benefits have exceeded the projections that were available during the 2012 session.

The governor and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have said increasing funding for common education will be a priority in next year’s budget.

“We are extremely dedicated to making sure common education receives a significant increase in the upcoming year,” Martin said. “The exact amount is what we’re discussing right now.”

A trio of Republican senators earlier this year, including the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. John Ford, asked to increase common education funding by at least $75 million for the next fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Democrats have consistently hammered Republicans for talking about increased funding for education while contemplating a one-quarter of 1 percent cut to the state’s personal income tax that is expected to cost about $120 million annually.

Besides funding, school safety has been a top priority for legislators in the wake of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Recommendations that emerged from a special task force created after the shooting have been drafted into bills that are working through the legislative process, including a measure requiring public schools to conduct drills to prepare students and teachers for possible intruders. Other recommendations by the task force include mental health training for school staffs and requiring unauthorized firearms discovered on a school’s grounds be reported to law enforcement authorities.

Public school districts also could decide whether to allow armed teachers in classrooms under a bill that has been approved by the House and is pending in the Senate. The bill, which would give districts the option of paying for teachers to receive a minimum of 120 hours of specialized training in order to carry a firearm into a school, has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

That bill has been opposed by many school officials, who have raised concerns over the safety and liability of allowing armed teachers.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Jackson said Gov. Mary Fallin has proposed $13 million to the common education budget, but the House of Representatives is pushing for much more. He said the Senate also wants to improve on that. The Enid Republican said the House is looking at and additional $75 million to $100 million in this year’s budget. That will assist both operational budgets and existing programs, which were mandates imposed on the schools in previous years. The House also is looking at supplemental funding.

“It’s still early in the process to have an overall budget, but it looks like common (education) will be really strong in 2013,” Jackson said.

State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said the Senate is pushing for $75 million. $25 million of that would pay for “band aids” to be put on some school districts in other years, another $25 million would go to operational costs such as fuel and utility costs, and $25 million would be used for employee benefits.

“It’s probably not enough, but we have to spread the money around to meet everybody’s demands. We also have higher education issues, and we only have $200 million to $250 million to spend over last year,” Anderson said.

AP writer Sean Murphy and Staff Writer Robert Barron contributed to this report.