Wednesday, March 9, 2016

County Superintendents Wrestle with Funding Cuts

Schools across the state and across Sequoyah County are wrestling with funding cuts by the state.

To ease the cuts, Gov. Mary Fallin has asked for $72 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for the state’s schools and prisons.

Fallin suggested using $51 million for public schools and $21 million for the Department of Corrections. The Rainy Day Fund contains $385 million, of which $144.4 million is available to address the 2016 fiscal year revenue failure.

"Four-day school weeks and draconian cuts at prisons are not acceptable and are not going to happen. The deepened revenue failure cuts have changed the budget situation in a way that requires immediate action, so I support accessing the Rainy Day Fund for common education and prisons,” said Fallin.

Four-day school weeks are not an option, agreed Sallisaw School Superintendent Scott Farmer. Farmer said the county’s school superintendents met Friday and none plan on four-day school weeks.

Farmer is hoping for the Rainy Day Funds. “We support that,” he said this week.

Farmer said Sallisaw Schools lost 4 percent of their state aid, and 3 percent of the Flex Benefit Allowances (FBA) which helps pay for insurance. Farmer said Sallisaw Schools lost 7 percent or about $150,000 in aid, as of last week. He said the school system has lost about 20 percent of its funding since 2009.

It’s not a school problem, he said, “It’s a legislature problem.”

Farmer said the school will focus on maintaining the core areas of education - math, reading, science and history. But to cut the budget, some programs are being considered to be cut.

“We are looking at programs we can cut,” Farmer said. “Right now one of the programs we are looking at is driver's ed.”

Sallisaw Schools will also not be hiring to replace teachers and staff who quit or retire.

“We know this creates a hardship on the kids,” Farmer said. “The reality is right now we’re just trying to make payroll.”

Farmer said anyone who has questions about the school’s finances is welcome to contact him and discuss the money problems. The phone number is 918-775-5544.

Ron Flanagan, Muldrow Schools superintendent, said he hopes to hear positive news about Gov. Fallin’s supplemental funds by the end of the week.

He said the school system, as of Wednesday, was down about $156,000 in funding, but there are no plans to go to a four-day school week.

Muldrow Schools does not plan on cutting programs either but will not replace teachers and staff who quit or retire.

“That of course will mean an increase in class sizes,” he said. “That’s the only way we have to control funding. About 75 percent of our budget is salaries.”

Muldrow Schools is also trying to control its budget by cutting utilities and by cancelling all overnight trips.

Greg Reynolds, Brushy School superintendent, said that school is also dealing with the budget cuts.

He said, “Brushy School is roughly down $38,000 up to this point, to include cuts to the flex benefit allowance. We are not planning on eliminating programs or staff. Overall we do not anticipate the quality of education dropping from this year’s budget. However, it will be difficult to sustain these cuts over the next few years and still educate students at the highest level.”

Reynolds said, “We are just going to tighten our belts a little bit. We are not going to lay off anyone.”

Victor Salcedo, superintendent at Vian Schools, said that system is dealing with the cuts much like the other schools.

Vian will not go to a four-day week.

“It’s not in the best interest of our kids and it puts a hardship on the parents,” Salcedo said. “The parents depend on us for that fifth day and for day care.”

Salcedo explained, “We are being careful on what we spend and looking carefully at what we purchase. We are being diligent about what we need.”

The school system is also working on conserving utilities, Salcedo said, and considering not replacing teachers and staff who leave or retire. Education is of the top most importance, Salcedo said, and he is concerned about the future.

“Next year is an unknown,” he said.

Vian Schools has lost $92,000 in funding this year.

Lucky McCrary, Gore Schools superintendent, is taking an active role in restoring school funding by taking an active role in political races this year.

“Those people (in the state legislature) are the ones who make the decisions. The people need to go to the polls and make their voices heard,” McCrary said. “Take a look at their voting records and you can see which way they went.

“We don’t need to be filling holes (in school funding). Preventing holes is what we need to do.”

McCrary said Gore Schools has lost about $69,000 in state aid and benefits this year, which equals about one and a half teacher salaries. Administration planned for the funding cuts and made appropriate plans.

“They tried the four-day school week before I came here and it was a disaster. There was no real savings,” McCrary said. There will be no four-day week at Gore Schools and no cuts in programs this year.

The students’ education comes first, McCrary said, but he is concerned about the possibility of program cuts next year.

He concluded, “It depends on what they (legislature) do next year.”

Larry Calloway, Gans School superintendent, said he will be meeting with Gans teachers on Friday morning to discuss how to save money this year and next year. Calloway said it is his understanding state funding would be cut another 10 percent next year, which would be a total of about $64,000 for Gans School.

So far this year Gans School has lost 7 percent, which equals $44,500.

Calloway said to save money he is considering moving all driver’s ed classes to the summer, which will save a little money.

The school is already short a girls' basketball coach and a middle school teacher. Those positions have not been filled, and Calloway himself coached the girls’ basketball team this year.

Calloway said teachers are taking on extra assignments to fill the gaps. With the permission of the Oklahoma Department of Education, teachers can teach all eight hours of the day instead of the seven hours. Normally they get one hour to plan, but administration can “buy” that hour by giving the teacher extra pay so the teacher can fill in a gap. The teacher then makes instruction plans before and after school. The State Department of Education may also give permission for a teacher to teach outside their own field of certification for one class period. They are called adjunct teachers. Calloway said Gans School has filled the teacher shortage using these two plans.

With possibly more funding cuts in the future, Calloway said, “We are not looking at hiring anyone new.

“Small schools have to improvise,” he said.

Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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