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State of flux


The function and makeup of the State Board of Education are in question as the body grapples with future budget woes.

Clifton Adcock March 2nd, 2011

Next year’s education budget could see a greater funding cut than the 2.9 percent reduction laid out in Gov. Mary Fallin’s budget because of federal funds running dry, Oklahoma State Board of Education members were told at its Feb. 24 meeting.

The February meeting was more cordial than the previous meeting, in which state Superintendent Janet Barresi locked horns with board members.

Former state Sen. Herb Rozell, the member state Republicans demanded resign following comments about one of Barresi’s legislative liaison appointments, was absent from the meeting.

Tim Gilpin, who in the previous meeting told Barresi she was not elected “dictator,” was present, but the two did not clash publicly.

While Barresi’s key staff appointments were the subject of the January meeting, the board used the most recent meeting to focus on budget issues schools and the education department will face in the upcoming fiscal year.

As the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds dry up this year, budget cuts are likely to exceed the 2.9 percent cuts in state funding.

Assistant Superintendent Jack Herron told the board that Fallin’s proposed budget appears to have made up for the loss of a third source of federal stimulus funding that was used for the past two fiscal years to plug serious budget holes. Where those projected funds come from is not yet known, Herron said.

Barresi and Herron both told the board that the budget picture would become clearer by this month’s meeting, and that more information would be provided then.

“We’re not on concrete, but the sand is shifting a little bit less,” Barresi said. “Next year will be a most challenging year for all of us. The reality is unfortunately even though we have a slight uptick in our revenue, it will be a challenging year for everyone.”

Gilpin said he was concerned schools were going to get hit a lot harder than a 2.9 percent cut from last year’s appropriations.

Schools have received drastic declines in funding amounts for the past two years, seeing around a 9 percent cut this fiscal year from what they were appropriated in fiscal year 2009-10, which was never fully funded, since state revenue collections began to fall during that time.

As for the fallout of January’s board meeting, Gilpin said he hopes two measures currently being examined by the Legislature — House Bill 2139, which would transfer the board’s power to the state superintendent, and Senate Bill 435, which would scrap the current board make-up and replace it with the state superintendent, governor, secretary of state and attorney general — do not pass. The measures were introduced after the blowup at the last meeting.

“I think it’s important to have a citizens’ board that’s served the state well for 40-plus years,” Gilpin said. “It’s a check; it’s a balance. It’s oversight of the politicians and the education budget. I don’t think an attorney general or secretary of state or the other folks who have specific constitutional duties have the time to do what a citizens’ board should do. On a more practical perspective, I just think having citizens overview the politicians is the best policy.”

Barresi did not say whether she supported the bills, but did criticize the board for approving a budget prior to her being sworn-in that brought education funding back to pre-recession levels.

“It shows that this is a board that does not take into consideration the reality of the time,” Barresi said.

Barresi also questioned the board for not using appropriated money last year to fund the teachers’ retirement fund. Last May, the Legislature approved a budget for common education, but did not include, as it usually does, instructions on where to divvy up much of the funds, meaning that job fell to the board. The board then sent money that would have otherwise gone to the teacher retirement fund to school districts to ease the severe cuts they were facing. An opinion recently issued by the attorney general’s office stated that the money must go to the retirement fund and cannot be used for other purposes.

“There have been actions that have raised the concern of legislators,” Barresi said. “I’m willing to work with them in any way they like, but also ready to carry out the will of the Legislature.”

 
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