Friday, April 6, 2018

The Public Education Funding Mess Is The Fault Of EVERY Citizen - So How Do We Fix It?

Since the beginning of this legislative session here in Oklahoma, teachers have been demanding raises. In March, the Oklahoma legislature passed an unprecedented tax to fund teacher raises and other educational needs, raising oil and gas production taxes to 5%, adding a $1 increase per pack on cigarettes, 6 cents on diesel/3 cents gas increases and a $5 tax on hotel motel tax (later repealed). While public education advocates celebrated, taxpayers fretted - and they have good reason to do so.

From House Bill 1017 to Pari-Mutuel Betting, the Lottery funds, Oklahoma tax paying citizens have been told, "do this now to fix the public education crisis and you'll never have to do it again", yet here we are again with another public education funding crisis so dire, teachers have walked off their jobs for a week and are threatening more. Unfortunately for them, the trust is broken between many of us taxpayers and public education. The bait is off that hook and we're left wondering how much will ever be enough to fund public education.

In order to determine for myself the depth of this latest education crisis, I've been reviewing as many figures as I can get my browser to bring up. Unfortunately, I'm nothing if not more confused. Numbers are numbers. They can be coded and manipulated and spun so that it's nearly impossible to determine what they actually mean in context, but it's not even that which is so problematic. It's that money comes in from so many sources to fund Oklahoma public education, it's almost impossible to get a good handle on how much that is, or where that money goes.

For instance, the 2018 budget request submitted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) was 2,647,808,063. It was accepted by the legislature with the Oklahoma State Budget and signed into law in February by Governor Fallin.

The OSDE budget request for 2017 was 2,383,589,158.95, however, OCAS (the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System) lists the total amount of revenue for the OSDE for that same year as 8,214,744,402.95. A nearly 6 BILLION dollar difference isn't small. Why the huge difference? Why are we constantly talking about 'appropriations' when there are so many funding sources out there? Where does this money go? Eight billion is coming in - where does it go?

So what are we to do? Here are but a few suggestions:

1. DEMAND AN AUDIT OF THE OSDE! Not only that, but audit some of the areas of revenue provided by such entities as the Commissioners of the Land Office. That should answer a whole lot of questions. You can sign a petition to ask lawmakers to request an audit here.

I just read the other day that there is a group working to audit certain agencies, but the OSDE has been left off the list, so don't let people tell you the Audit Commission will deal with it. They aren't authorized to do so. It will have to be an INDEPENDENT forensic or performance audit.

2. TELL LEGISLATORS YOU SUPPORT THEIR ATTEMPT TO REVAMP THE SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULA! There is a task force of six legislators led by Senator Gary Stanislawski who are attempting to make the school funding formula easier to administer. Did you know that "64 school districts last year generated too much local tax revenue to qualify for the state's school funding formula"? So where did those appropriations go if they didn't go to 64 districts of 554? These task force meetings are public meetings - find out when they are - and go! DON'T COMPLAIN IF YOU'RE NOT GOING TO GET INVOLVED.

3. GO TO YOUR SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS! You can't possibly gripe and complain about teacher pay or classroom funding if you have NO IDEA what is going on in your school district and the only way you're going to find that out is to go to a school board meeting! That's it! That's the only way. They are only once a month (excepting special meetings).Your classroom teacher might give you informational tidbits here and there, but have THEY been to the school board meetings? That's a good question to ask.

4. GET TO KNOW YOUR SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER! Call them up and visit. Ask them questions about school funding, develop a relationship with them that will allow you to feel comfortable about reaching out to them. They are there to help you and they are there to serve you - you elect them to do just that. They work for you, not the Superintendent - and this point is important - whether or not you have a child being educated in the district. EVERYONE who owns property pays property taxes - also called Ad Valorem taxes - which help fund your local school district. If you can lose your property for not paying your property taxes, then you have the right to be able to speak candidly to your school board member.

5. STUDY THE DISTRICT BUDGET! I can't tell you the number of times I have asked teachers posting complaints about our lack of support for the teacher walkout if they've read their district budget. They either get mad or quit posting after that - I've yet to have one admit they haven't read their district budget. How in the world do you know the funding issues present in your district if you haven't READ THE BUDGET!? In order to be educated on the topic - before you complain - know how much the school gets in funding, from what sources and what the encumbrances (bills) are for that district. Only THEN can you have a cogent discussion about lack of funding. Don't forget, EVERY district is audited EVERY year. Look at the audit, ask questions. There have been many concerns about poor school district auditing procedures and frequently, audits find financial mismanagement. If the audit isn't good, your budget isn't good. If your budget isn't good, your funding isn't good. Period. This is important information to know. 
6. RUN FOR SCHOOL BOARD IN YOUR SCHOOL DISTRICT! The craziest thing about trying to become a school board member is the FILING date!

Annual School Election — February 13, 2018
Annual School Runoff Election — April 3, 2018
Opens 8:00 A.M., December 4, 2017
Closes 5:00 P.M., December 6, 2017

Yes, you have to FILE in December to run in FEBRUARY. No, it makes no sense, but that's another issue that would have to be changed via legislation. Yes, it has been tried. No, it hasn't passed and you have to ask yourself why. Why would it be so hard to run for school board?

7. VOTE IN YOUR SCHOOL BOARD AND BOND ISSUE ELECTIONS! Right now, public education advocates are hammering home the idea that the state must be flipped from red to blue. We have to have a Democrat majority to get anything done on education. Well, that's false, but it's a great narrative. You HAVE TO VOTE - you have to be engaged at the very lowest level where it really matters - IN YOUR TOWN. You can't elect your superintendent, but if you're a school board member you can! You can't set your superintendent's pay scale, but if you're a school board member you can. Budgeting STARTS with the superintendent and the budget is PASSED by the SCHOOL BOARD. How important is it then, that you take part in that process?  VERY!

There are pictures roaming the internet of rows of empty voting machines during school bond and school board elections. YOU HAVE TO VOTE to participate in the process - and if you choose not to do anything but make a sign and march - YOU'RE YOUR OWN BIGGEST PROBLEM. Participating in the process - not marching - will go a long way toward straightening out the problem of continued public education funding crises. JUST DO IT! 

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