MIDWEST CITY — Public school districts will be encouraged in the upcoming months to consolidate or share administrative services in order to free up more money for the classroom, Gov. Mary Fallin said Friday.
Oklahoma has 522 school districts, and that's too many, Fallin told newspaper publishers and editors attending the Oklahoma Press Association's annual convention.
“It is time to have a debate about the structure of our school systems,” Fallin said. “I can't tell you what that debate will look like, but certainly to look at the funding, the sources, the needs, the growth. We have some school communities that are growing in population ... and we have other school districts that are losing population.”
Fallin said she isn't talking about forcing consolidation efforts.
“I support those who voluntarily want to share services, those who want to join school districts, and we've seen some of that over the past several years where districts have come together — some where it just makes sense.”
The Braman and Newkirk school districts are consolidating effective July 1, which will bring the number of districts down to 521, a state Education Department spokeswoman said.
Fallin said voluntary consolidations and shared services will be a part of the discussion on public schools, which she hopes to make a key point of her legislative agenda next year.
“We've heard from a lot of people this year about education, and we want to continue to make that a priority,” she said. “It's important for economic development.”
Fallin said she is concerned about the high number of high school graduates in the state who are required to take remedial courses in college because they lack the knowledge to take college courses.
“We have statistics that show that many of our students take five to six years to get through college,” she said. “One of the reasons is because they aren't prepared when they start that freshman year in college to do the basic coursework of math and writing and science skills. They have to take those remedial courses and delay starting their true college coursework.”
Public schools are to receive $2.3 billion in the 2013 fiscal year, which starts July 1, That's about 33 percent of the legislatively appropriated budget of $6.8 billion.
Fallin, who said during her 2010 gubernatorial campaign that she favored combining school administrative and even educational functions when possible, said she was interested in working with lawmakers next year to consider ways to financially encourage school districts to consolidate.
“I'm not, at this point, for mandatory consolidation,” she said. “But I think there are ways that we could look at ways to encourage schools where it makes sense to join together.”
Water task force
Fallin also was asked about the status of a task force that was formed last month to try to come up with a possible solution in a federal lawsuit over water rights in Oklahoma. The 19-member task force, which includes state, tribal, business and energy leaders, has met twice so far with the federal mediator assigned to the case, she said.
“We believe it's in the best interest of the state for us to continue talking, continue mediating,” she said. “Legal processes that are long and drawn out and costly don't benefit anybody. It's not good for the state of Oklahoma. It's not good for economic development.”
The task force is seen as an effort to resolve a federal lawsuit filed last year by the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations to stop Oklahoma's plans to draw water from Sardis Lake in Pushmataha County and deliver it to Oklahoma City.
Waterways at the center of the dispute include the Kiamichi River and the Muddy Boggy and Clear Boggy stream systems. The tribes claim the water rights were granted to them through a series of treaties signed with the federal government in the 1830s. They say any unauthorized removal or export of the water is a direct violation of federal law.
“I'm hoping that we can continue our negotiations, continue talking, continue mediating especially with the attorneys and keep moving forward,” Fallin said. “That's the most important thing.”