The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 13, 2007

Lawmakers frustrated with budget

By Cindy Allen, Managing Editor

No news is, well, no news, and that’s basically what local superintendents and school officials got from area legislators Friday morning regarding progress on the state budget.

“The budget is at a standstill,” said Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City. Separate appropriations bills have been passed in the Senate that fund certain agencies at the same levels the governor proposed in his budget.

However, Rep. John Enns, R-Waukomis, said he heard Gov. Brad Henry on a radio talk show Thursday say those bills would be “dead in the water” when they arrive at his desk.

All legislators in attendance at the regular breakfast meeting with superintendents Friday expressed frustration with the process. They blame Henry for not giving lawmakers more information about what he wants.

Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, said the governor has claimed he hasn’t been invited to negotiate on the budget, but “that’s not true.”

“He’s been invited a bunch,” DeWitt said.

The problem, Myers said, is the governor apparently wants minority Democrats at the negotiating table, and Myers said the minority party leaders get input on the budget but usually not a seat at the negotiating table.

Local school officials expressed concern about future pay raises for teachers and where those stand. According to the lawmakers attending Friday’s meeting, the governor’s budget calls for a $1,200 pay raise with no benefits funded, and a budget bill approved by the Legislature and vetoed by Henry called for a $600 pay raise that included funding the benefits and would flow through the school state aid formula.

What concerns school officials, like Karl White, business manager for Enid Public Schools, is pay raises that go through the formula often strap small districts when it comes to operating money.

“The problem with bumping it up again is we’re squeezing operations dollars, and something has to give,” White said.

Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said there is some concern the Legislature’s funding of teacher pay raises outside the formula may open up potential litigation.

Last year’s $3,000 pay raise was changed at the last minute to not include funding benefits, DeWitt said. The original budget called for a $2,400 pay raise with benefits but was changed at the last minute to the higher dollar figure and was funded outside the state aid formula.

Myers said there wasn’t much concern last year over that because the state was doing well financially and lottery estimations were high. Lottery estimates turned out to be unrealistic, however, and that’s one reason why districts are facing teacher cuts this year, he said.

Superintendents expressed concern the same thing can happen again with future teacher increases.

“We’re giving raises but at the same time, we cut staff?” White remarked.

Other issues on school officials’ minds included a bill that would require students to take personal finance economics as a graduation requirement. The class would provide students with the basic knowledge of personal finances. The curriculum will enable students to manage savings, investments and checking accounts, as well as design and maintain a household budget and manage personal debt.

While superintendents like the idea, they fear such a requirement would be another unfunded mandate.

“That course has 14 modules to it,” said Ruth Ann Erdner, Enid assistant superintendent.

Lawmakers said they don’t believe such a measure will pass this year.

What does have a chance of passing is a bill that will provide sales tax exemptions on certain articles of clothing and footwear. It also calls for a sales tax holiday.

“That bill is steamrolling,” Myers said. He said he did not vote for the bill because he thinks it’s a bad idea, and he has had a lot of criticism for his vote.

The meeting ended with a plea from EPS Superintendent Kem Keithly to other superintendents about possibly picking up six of the Enid teachers who have been affected by the reduction in force.

“They are all good people,” he said. “If you happen to need one of these people, they are all quality people.”

Ironically, while six teachers face layoffs, Enid has vacancies in areas where those six are not certified, such as special education, Spanish and speech pathology.