IN 2007, Oklahoma school districts started the state's fiscal year with a combined $460 million in carry-over funds. This year, the carry-over total is up to $771 million, a 67 percent increase that significantly outpaces inflation.
Why is so much more being held back? What do schools plan to do with the extra money? Answers to these questions are in short supply. The only thing school administrators are making clear is that they don't want the money used to provide $2,000 apiece to teachers.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi recently suggested a $2,000 teacher pay raise could be achieved by earmarking 10 percent of districts' carry-over along with a 2 percent reduction in overhead. Several administrators have since come out against that plan. Their arguments might be more compelling if they weren't also self-contradictory.
Dwayne Thompson, chief financial officer of Broken Arrow Public Schools, wrote in a newspaper op-ed that it's “fiscally irresponsible to assign a recurring cost — such as salary increases — to a nonrecurring revenue stream — such as district fund balances.” Fair enough. But Thompson made that point after bragging that districts have been raising teacher pay “on their own for quite some time.”
“Our district already pays employees an average of $2,776 more than the state minimum,” he wrote. “This is possible not because we have received additional funding from the state, but because we are fiscally responsible and use wise accounting practices.”
In other words, Thompson boasted about implementing a variation of Barresi's plan even as he simultaneously insisted it was financially reckless to do so.
Broken Arrow's carry-over grew from $7.8 million in 2007 to $18.5 million in 2012, an increase of 137 percent. The district's carry-over increased by more than $8 million in a single year (from 2011 to 2012). So it's hard to believe the school is hurting for money. And Thompson isn't the only administrator talking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue.
Joe Siano, superintendent of Norman Public Schools, recently attacked Barresi's proposal in a newspaper column. Yet Siano also noted that over the past three years Norman schools have “committed an additional $3.4 million to salary increases for teachers.”
When the Norman Board of Education approved pay increases one year ago averaging around 4 percent for teachers, support and administrative staff at a cost of $2 million, The Oklahoman's Jane Glenn Cannon reported, “The action is not a result of an increase in state funding, but rather the district using reserve funds to make it possible ...”
So Siano was apparently for using carry-over money for pay raises before he was against it. For what it's worth, Norman's carry-over surged from $5.1 million in 2007 to $9.5 million in 2012, an 86 percent increase.
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard recently dismissed Barresi's proposal, suggesting Barresi needed to “take a basic course in school finance.” Yet in August, the Tulsa School Board approved $2.6 million in stipends. How was that funded? The Tulsa World reported, “Tulsa Public Schools is using carry-over funds for one-time teacher stipends.” Does Ballard also need a course in school finance?
Enid Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Hime may win the award for the most over-the-top response. The day Barresi outlined her proposal, Hime tweeted, “Park your buses and turn off the electricity and we can pay teachers. What a warped sense of reality.”
In June, when the Enid School Board approved a pay increase for Hime, he raised no comparable financial objections. The last we heard, Enid students aren't sitting in the dark as a result. Enid's carry-over grew from $2.1 million in 2007 to $7.3 million in 2012, an increase of 247 percent.
Hime has told the Enid News, “We cannot compare Oklahoma's salary schedule with other states without looking at the total picture of education funding. Oklahoma schools receive $1.2 billion less in state revenue than would be required to equal the per-pupil revenue Dr. Barresi thinks we can match in teacher pay with $100 million.”
So Hime turned teacher pay raises costing $100 million into a demand for $1.2 billion with no explanation of where the other $1.1 billion will go. And he's among the administrators questioning other people's math skills?
Schools certainly must maintain some carry-over to pay operational expenses incurred between every June 30, the end of the state's fiscal year, and the receipt of subsequent state budget appropriations around two months later. Given the significant growth in carry-over since 2007, however, it would seem schools' reserves have well outpaced the amount needed for that purpose.
Admittedly, not every district's carry-over account is bursting at the seams. Barresi's proposal won't work for all schools. But that doesn't justify inaction or complacency in districts that have healthy savings.
It's reasonable to be concerned about using one-time funds for ongoing salary expenses; this doesn't preclude using savings for one-time bonuses. As noted above, carry-over is already being allocated for similar expenditures. Barresi has also endorsed stipends, noting a one-time bonus has the same annual effect as a raise: Both put more money in an individual's pockets.
Regardless of the pay debate's outcome, Oklahomans deserve to know how and why schools have increased their savings by $311 million since 2007 even as many school officials and their apologists claimed districts were being financially “starved.” That many school administrators seem eager to avoid discussing this topic, and are even disavowing their own past actions, raises a giant red flag.