Educators throughout the state know tens of millions of dollars in school funding will disappear because of a new property tax law, but no one is exactly sure what the real impact will be.
For Oklahoma City Public Schools, the loss likely will be millions because of State Question 766, which voters passed in November.
“It has an ongoing ripple effect for years and years,” said Sandra Park, deputy superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools.
State Question 766 exempted intangible property — such as patents, contracts and mineral leases — from ad valorem property taxes. The exemption applies to about 250 businesses, such as utilities, railroads and airlines.
Initially, officials estimated the change would cut about $30 million from school coffers. Then, the state Tax Commission estimated the tax break would total $50 million statewide, but the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration has more recently estimated that the total will be twice that.
Oklahoma schools receive about $2 billion in state funding and $2 billion in ad valorem and other local taxes each year, said Joel Robison, chief of staff at the state Education Department.
Cutting $30 million to $100 million will hurt, he said.
If the Legislature ups education funding, those extra dollars will be eaten up by the loss of the intangible property taxes, Robison said.
Robison said school district officials won't know solid numbers until December, when the state Education Department doles out midyear funding. How much each district gets can depend on local tax revenue, he said.
“We really are all kind of waiting to see how this works,” Robison said.
“I don't think that our legislators are mean-spirited,” Park said. “I think they're looking at how to help individuals and businesses, but I don't think they've ever had a good lesson on what it takes to run a school. It sounds so good to give tax cuts.”
Three years ago, the district went through a series of austerity measures, such as laying off workers and restructuring central office staff. If the district has to tighten its belt again, Park said the goal will be to maintain academic integrity.
“What's out there that we can look at that won't hurt the classroom?” she said.
Tulsa education officials have predicted their district could lose between $2.5 million and $6 million. Park said she expects Oklahoma City losses would be similar.
Oklahoma City Public Schools has been able to grow the carry-over balance in recent years, but Park said that money won't last forever.
Impact on classrooms
The loss of intangible property taxes is particularly tough considering the cost of extra state mandates on school districts in Oklahoma, such as the new teacher evaluation system and third-grade reading standards, Park said.
“That's where the challenge comes — trying to figure out how to balance those two,” Park said. “It's going to trickle down to the classroom.”
With new school board members and a recently-completed audit, Park said district officials are looking ahead, even if the future is uncertain.
“Even if you're frustrated, you don't have that luxury,” she said. “The kids are still going to be there, whether we're frustrated or not.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Randy Ellis and the Tulsa World