The board voted unanimously to approve the budget for fiscal year 2011, which starts Thursday, although Betsy Mabry of Enid noted members did so with "no smiles on our faces."
The state Department of Education received about $196.4 million — or about 7.6 percent — less than the current fiscal year. State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said state education officials tried to prioritize "teaching and learning" as they worked to balance the budget.
The state will be able to help school districts pay for increases in employees' health insurance costs going forward. But staff development and academic achievement awards programs, among others, will be cut or delayed into future years, saving $7.8 million and $4.97 million, respectively.
"You've got to take care of the children and you've got to take care of the teachers," Garrett said. "The rest of us don't count that much. That was our focus."
While preparing the state budget, legislative leaders and Gov. Brad Henry had about $1.2 billion less to spend for the upcoming fiscal year than the current one, although they pledged education was a priority.
Garrett said the state Department of Education didn't receive line-item appropriations for specific programs from the Legislature, as the agency had in the past, leaving her and other agency officials to grapple with which programs would be cut and by how much. That didn't sit well with board member Tim Gilpin of Tulsa, who said the Legislature abdicated its responsibility and produced a "faux budget," leaving the "dirty work" for the board.
"Our priority is not education is what they're saying," said Gilpin, who predicted the funding cuts would cause teachers to leave the state and force children to use old textbooks and deal with larger class sizes.
House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, said in a statement that the Legislature "minimized cuts to public schools" and noted other agencies had budgets "slashed by as much as 15 percent."
Benge said legislators didn't make line-item appropriations "so the Oklahoma State Board of Education would have the flexibility to preserve existing programs and reforms while finding efficiencies. Our intent was not for any programs to be eliminated, but to give the state board the ability to maximize the benefit of every dollar for Oklahoma schoolchildren.
"Had we not done so, I am sure the board would have instead complained that the Legislature was micromanaging them."
Garrett said about $18.2 million saved from cutting or eliminating programs will be used to help districts bear rising health insurance costs for teachers and staff members. She said those costs rose by 8 percent in January and districts had to deal with that increase without help from the state.
Budget issues have taken a toll on the state's education system the past year, she said, noting a survey of districts indicated Oklahoma would have 1,831 fewer teachers and 1,358 fewer support staff for the 2010-11 school year than during the 2009-10 school year. The state Department of Education has left 68 positions unfilled.
"It looks like we're eating away at the edges of reform," said Garrett, who while working for then-Gov. Henry Bellmon, was a key player in the 1990 passage of a major education reform bill.
Benge said that to help schools deal with declining revenue, the Legislature passed a bill this year that rolled back initiatives such as requiring professional development for teachers and penalties for schools that don't meet media materials requirements. It also exempts schools from appointing a textbook committee for two years and allows districts to spend textbook money for general operations.
The bill also suspended for two years new applications for a state program that offers a $5,000 annual stipend for teachers who attain National Board certification.
Gilpin said the bill gave schools the flexibility "to not meet their standards."