While teachers in Tulsa Public Schools are bracing for hundreds of layoffs before next year, Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer said his district could be in "arguably one of the better financial positions in the state of Oklahoma.” Comparing the finances of Oklahoma’s two largest school districts is difficult at best. Both have struggled this year with multi-million dollar deficits in operating budgets that exceed $300 million. They have cut operations and economized. But while one district plans pink slips, the other has had few public discussions about the financial situation. Oklahoma City Schools Chief Financial Officer Scott Randall estimates an $8.6 million revenue shortfall this year. The district cut 25 percent of the central office and vehicle service center budgets, or approximately $1.25 million, and instituted a soft-hiring freeze. Rather than layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts, Oklahoma City plans to pull $10 million from the district’s reserves to balance the 2010 budget, leaving the district with just over $10 million in reserve funds. "We’ve drawn down half of our excess reserves in one year,” Board Member Steve Shafer said. "That’s scary because historically Oklahoma is a late recession state. I think the possibility or potential is there that though nationally things appear to be stabilizing. The likelihood is that we haven’t seen the worst of it.” Tulsa Public Schools had a reserve fund this year of $7.4 million that can be used for general operating expenses and drew $500,000 of that to make up the deficit. The Tulsa School board voted to not fill or terminate 126 central office positions and 226 teaching positions for a savings of about $13 million in fiscal year 2011. Springer defended the decision to dip into reserves this year and next year as a necessary step to prevent setbacks in the education of children. "We have a carry-over because we know that there are going to be situations that are cyclical where the economy is going to be terrible and we need those funds to get through that,” Springer said, adding that previous administrations should be applauded for the $20.6 million fund balance that is benefiting Oklahoma City today. Springer said even after using half of the funds, there should still be enough reserves to carry the district through 2011. "We can always cut, we can always do that. What we can’t always do is undo the harm that is created when (we cut),” Springer said.
Preparing for worstSeveral school districts are prepping for the worst in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Tulsa estimates it will face a budget deficit of at least $13 million that year. Putnam City’s deficit is near $6 million, according to estimates from the district. Oklahoma City has declined to speculate on next year’s revenue shortfall until numbers are released from the state in June. "I can say we are going to do everything we can to try to make it so our kids don’t notice that there is a financial problem in our state,” Springer said, adding that next year, state-mandated step-increases in pay may not be possible. Without those state-mandated raises, Oklahoma City would save about $5 million. "We are going to have to go through a year or two where we don’t give any salary increases and we don’t fill all of our positions,” Springer said. "It’s painful but it’s something we have to do.”