Ponca City, OK

Schools Forced to Make Budget Cuts

STUDENTS FROM West Middle School enjoy their lunch break by spending time outside. Ponca City, along with the other school districts in Oklahoma, continue to face budget cuts. (News Photo by Rolf Clements)

STUDENTS FROM West Middle School enjoy their lunch break by spending time outside. Ponca City, along with the other school districts in Oklahoma, continue to face budget cuts. (News Photo by Rolf Clements)

Due to additional state budget cuts in education, Kay County public school districts are forced to make difficult decisions, resulting in the elimination of positions, programs and opportunities they know are beneficial for students.

Oklahoma public schools were notified on April 12 their monthly payment from the State of Oklahoma would be reduced by an additional $17.4 million, bringing the total reductions since January 2017 to nearly $87 million.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education notified school districts in advance of the April payment that state revenue collections continue to fall far short of expectations in both the 1017 Fund and the Common Education Technology Revolving Fund. These are two revenue streams that feed into state aid for common education and are the primary source of state funding for public schools.

The most recent cut for the Ponca City Public School District was $112,333, making their total state aid cut for the year $581,366. Other Kay County school district cuts for this fiscal year to date are: Blackwell $173,233; Tonkawa $87,206; Newkirk $94,017 and Kildare $245.

Districts across the state were asked by the Oklahoma State School Board Association (OSSBA) how they are addressing current-year budget cuts, and many reported:

• Cuts in teachers (RIF – reduction in force), support employees and administrators.

• Reduction or elimination of summer programs, field trips and advanced student coursework.

• Increased class sizes.

• Elimination of arts and/or athletics.

• Hiring freezes and employee furloughs.

• Delayed textbook purchases.

• Elimination of paid substitutes in favor of recruiting volunteers.

• Implementing four-day school week.

“Tonkawa Schools have been through the RIF process two of the past three years,” reports Lori Simpson, Tonkawa Superintendent.

“We have two principals supervising 760 students and carrying out other district tasks as well. Classes at the elementary house between 19-25 students, and the secondary carries up to 30 each period. We are running a skeletal crew. We may have to consider not filling some of our vacancies and growing class-size even more,” she said.

“Last week, our Board voted to move high school athletics to after the school day. This will free up six certified teachers to offer more class choices. This decision was totally driven by the lack of state funding. In addition, we have converted all our lighting to LED, and this is showing a decrease in our electric bills. We are looking at our largest expenditures, such as insurance and technical support, to see where we can trim some costs. Bottom line, we are doing everything we can to continue to provide the strongest academic environment for our students with the least amount of change.”

“The Blackwell Board of Education has been informed that the district is looking at everything in the budget and the possibility of the need to make deeper cuts in the district for next year,” explains Rick Riggs, Blackwell superintendent.

“The cuts to the budget have forced the district to look at a hiring freeze, not purchasing text books, consolidation of administrator duties, cuts to extra-curricular activities, increasing class sizes in the elementary and middle school, and a freeze on step increases for support personnel. The Blackwell Public School District has made substantial cuts over the last three years to the number of staff members in the district and not cut many services/programs completely because remaining staff members have taken on the extra duties to keep the services for the students,” he said.

“Over the last three years, class sizes have grown as teaching positions have been cut. Administration has been cut, and the district has bought very few textbooks,” he said.

“Teachers/administrators have covered classes allowing the district to not hire substitutes. The Blackwell Booster clubs have had fund raisers and paid for many of the extra-curricular activities and equipment so that students could remain active in the district. I believe the district may have to look at cuts this year to programs and services that simply cannot be absorbed by current staff members.”

“At this time, we are not in a position to where we will have to cut any programs or staff,” reports Brady Barnes, Newkirk superintendent . “If the cuts continue into next year, that is something we will be forced to deal with.  The cuts that are currently being put into place make it difficult for us to buy the things we need for our students to be successful.  These things include consumables for our science labs, band instrument repairs, and technology needs.”

In letter sent to parents and staff in April, Ponca City School Superintendent Dr. David Pennington announced a freeze in general fund expenditures and instituted a hiring freeze for the reminder of the fiscal year.

“What is happening to public education in our state is not normal,” said Pennington. “Instead of focusing on how we are going to improve educational outcomes for our children, we are spending too much of our time focused on how we can operate our schools with fewer and fewer resources. The challenge moving forward is anticipating what the legislature will do to address the budget problems of the State. Last year at this time school districts knew their funding would be cut but did not know how deep. This year school districts do not have a clear signal as to what the legislature will do. However, unless the legislature raises taxes, eliminates/modifies tax exemptions and tax credits, restructures sales tax, cuts the budget of, or eliminates, funding for other state agencies, school districts across the state will see significant cuts in state funding for the 2017-18 school year.”

According to information released from the Oklahoma State School Board Association, since 2009, state appropriation cuts to schools have totaled over $1 billion and Oklahoma has approximately 2,000 fewer certified educators while enrollment has increased by more than 39,000 students. With fewer educators, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has issued 1,154 emergency teaching certificates – a record number, to fill vacancies among a historic teacher shortage.

Education appropriations are down $110.4 million since the start of the 2015-16 school year, including $69.1 million to date this school year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma invests less in public schools per student than nearly every state in the nation.

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