Mike Brake | April 11, 2018
School districts' funding confusing to taxpayers
By Mike Brake
As teachers from across Oklahoma descended upon the state Capitol to make their voices heard regarding what they consider to be low pay, overcrowded classrooms, and outdated textbooks, work was churning ahead in at least two central Oklahoma school districts on plush new football stadiums. Meanwhile, in Norman, every middle and high school student was enjoying the use of a new laptop computer.
Those are just some facts that prove understandably confusing to Oklahoma taxpayers who are once again being asked to provide more tax revenue to support schools that are seemingly perpetually in a fiscal crisis—even when there are simultaneous examples of lavish school spending.
In fact, thanks to the various restrictions on how schools can spend money, it is possible for an Oklahoma school district to be both nearly broke and rolling in dollars at the same time.
Revenue for operating schools—paying salaries, buying fish sticks for the cafeteria, etc.—comes essentially from three sources: state aid, local property taxes, and federal funds. The first and last are apportioned on the basis of enrollment, while property taxes are based on total property valuation within the school district’s boundaries.
That is what is in play during the teacher walkout. The revenue bills passed so far by the Legislature are designed to boost state aid to schools to allow the projected $6,100 annual teacher pay raise and to increase general school budgets to permit replacing textbooks and other needed items.
But funds for things like buildings and football stadiums are largely derived from the sale of bonds approved by a vote of the taxpayers. Districts can also use bonds or other local property tax levies to pay for computers and textbooks. The Legislature’s actions so far would have no impact on that funding, although at least one bill has been proposed to allow the use of some local property tax funds for teacher pay and other expenditures.
Senate Joint Resolution 70, authored by state Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma City) and state Rep. Elise Hall (R-Oklahoma City), was approved by the Senate on March 8 by a vote of 34 to 8. The measure is now in the House of Representatives.
Still, the overall school funding system remains confusing to many taxpayers, who have heard repeatedly that school funding has been “slashed”—even as the bulldozers continue to roll down at the school preparing for the new building. How is it possible, they wonder, for my school to cry poverty while it spends millions on this or that stated need?
Teachers from Jenks Public Schools, for example, were at the Capitol last week advocating for more education funding, then driving home past a state-of-the-art athletic facility that would make many major colleges envious.
In fact, the Robert L. Sharp Center at Jenks has a ground-floor weight room, a second-floor fitness center, meeting rooms, whirlpools, even a sports medicine center advertised on the school website as giving Jenks athletes “medical care that is comparable to that found in most NCAA Division I colleges and universities.”
Jenks also has an Olympic-sized pool and aquatic center. The school is a perennial state title threat in a range of sports, and its athletic facilities, among the most expansive and luxurious in the state, are the envy of many. Yet Jenks, too, is enthusiastically taking part in the teacher walkout.
Edmond and Putnam City teachers were at the Capitol too, while in both districts workers were plowing ahead on bond-financed new football stadiums that will give each district a full-sized stadium at each of its three high schools. The one at Edmond Santa Fe High School boasts “NFL quality” artificial turf and cost $10 million.
In Norman, a bond-financed program gives every teacher, and every middle and high school student, an Apple MacBook laptop computer, which retails for about $1,000. The iTech program costs $16 million.
A 2016 Oklahoma City Public Schools bond issue totaled some $180 million, of which at least $54 million was for classroom technology. Other districts commonly allocate substantial amounts of bond funds for similar needs.
Officials in Owasso debunked a photo that purported to show ragged textbooks being used in class, noting that they had in fact included $2 million for textbook purchases in a recent bond issue. It was later noted that Owasso’s bond package also included more than twice that amount for football field artificial turf.
Senate Joint Resolution 70, the measure that would allow more local property tax revenues to be used for teacher salaries and other operational expenses, is now awaiting action in the House of Representatives.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.