Oklahoma school district administrators not eager to discuss carry-over funds

The Oklahoman Editorial Modified: September 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm •  Published: September 15, 2013
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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?

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