Board Adopts 2015-2016 Budget

Post date: May 29, 2015 5:51:01 AM

by Granger Meador, BEA Chief Negotiator

For months the Superintendent's Budget Development Committee has been working to project 2015-2016 funding, assess district budget requests, and develop a budget recommendation for the local board of education. I have the dubious distinction of being the only teacher on the committee. The recommendation was considered and approved by the board of education on Thursday, May 28, 2015. It includes a number of personnel changes caused by the Grades 9-12 reconfiguration and personnel cuts across all grade levels to address inadequate state funding.

State Funding Isn't As Flat As You May Think

The legislature has been crowing about providing a "flat" state education budget, failing to acknowledge that the overall increase in the state's student population means that there will actually be less funding per pupil. Bartlesville is projecting a $107,000 loss in state formula funding from this, and that loss could be even greater if our guess on a leveling off of "virtual" student enrollments in the state is incorrect.

The governor and most legislators fail to acknowledge that their repeated cuts in the state income tax have devastated state revenues, on top of the revenue losses from the latest downturn in the petroleum industry, which is always volatile. Rather than allow state schools and services to recover from huge cuts in 2009, the income tax cuts have held down funding and promise to grow even worse later this year as yet another income tax cut takes effect. This is galling since the legislature struggled to deal with a $600 million gap in funding this session and failed to do anything to address a statewide teacher shortage caused by lowest-in-the-region salaries (Oklahoma only ranks above South Dakota, Mississippi, and Idaho in average teacher salaries).

Local Spending Cut Over $600,000

The legislature and governor's irresponsible income tax cuts have forced the legislature to raid the state "rainy day fund" and drain many "revolving accounts" even as they cut funding for higher education, vo-tech schools, and most state agencies. These strategies are not sustainable and the fear that there could be a state funding shortfall in early 2016 and cuts in state school funding in the next legislative session led the local school board to adopt a budget that cuts spending by almost $603,000.

The school board has been spending more than it took in as revenue for the past several years, spending down its fund balance in hopes that state funding would recover. That has not happened and now the fund balance is down to roughly 8.2% with encumbrances. Long-standing board policy has been to not dip below a 7% fund balance, which would happen without significant cuts in spending.

Even with over $600,000 in spending reductions, the fund balance is still expected to decline to 7.5%. That leaves only about $240,000 of buffer above the 7% fund balance level, which could quickly be drained by state funding cuts or unexpected expenses.

Board Members Agonized Over Cutting Primary Reading Teachers

The board members readily accepted most of the budget committee recommendations, but spent time discussing the Even Start program and agonized over cutting all six of the Primary Reading Teachers (PRTs) and cutting site budgets by 8.3%. The PRTs were added in 2013-2014 so that each elementary school had another teacher to work with the students having the most difficulty passing newly mandated 3rd grade reading tests for promotion to 4th grade. While the program has been successful in helping students improve their reading skills, it cost almost $284,000 annually with no new state funding to support it.

Given the unsustainable funding actions in the state legislature, I was adamant in recommending to the board that all six PRT positions be cut so as to maintain a projected 7.5% fund balance. One board member was concerned about funding a new string teacher position (requested because of the very high student/teacher ratio in the program, higher than in any peer district) even as reading teachers were being cut. Questions were answered about why the middle school string program has open enrollment and how the committee established its funding priorities.

Eventually the five board members present unanimously voted to adopt a budget cutting all six PRT positions and reduce the site budgets (Vice-President Scott Bilger and newly appointed member Tyler Vaclaw were absent). However, the board directed Dianne Martinez, the Executive Director of Elementary Education, to work on a significantly cheaper plan to provide some reading support, to be presented to the board at a future meeting. Initial possibilities include creating one or more classified positions to assist with reading in place of the six certified positions which were cut. The board also discussed how, if mid-year revenue turns out well in early 2016, it could then restore the site budgets.

Even Start Childcare Program Discussed

Some years back an Even Start Childcare Program was funded by a state grant, but the grant ran out. The district sustained the program as a mechanism to help reduce dropouts by providing pregnant students with child care, and some teachers and members of the public also took advantage of the program. Two teachers spoke in support of the program during public comment at the previous board meeting. However, state funding and fees are only covering about 3/4 of the cost of the program, and lately only 3 students and 9 teachers were using the program. Since it would cost the district almost $25,000 to continue the program and child care is not a core district mission, the board opted to end it.

Certified and Classified Step Increases and Administrative Raises Funded

Recognizing that certified step increases actually cost the district no additional funding, due to more experienced teachers retiring and typically being replaced by ones with less experience, and that classified and administrative positions require similar small increases to keep up with part of the increased cost of living and thus both attract and retain employees, the board approved the usual step increases for certified and classified employees and the usual administrative raises.

Suspension of Planned Certified Raise for Adding 5 Minutes to Instructional Day

The third part of a three-year plan to increase the instructional day by 15 minutes was suspended. It would have provided a $460 raise for all teachers while increasing the mandated teacher work day from 7 hours 25 minutes to 7 hours 30 minutes. Board members said they still hoped to fund that change in a future year if the state improves district funding. In 2015-2016 the instructional day at all schools will increase to reflect the 10 minutes added to the teacher work day (and paid for by across-the-board raises) over the past two years.

Step 27 Added; All Out-of-State Experience Recognized

The board recognized that our salary schedule is not competitive with our peers for career teachers, with our schedule ending at step 26 while the peer average goes through step 33 and some peer districts go through step 40. They approved adding Step 27 to the salary schedule; this change was also fully paid for by attrition.

In an effort to improve our district's competitiveness in attracting out-of-state teachers, the board approved recognizing ALL out-of-state teaching experience in our certified salary schedule. The state only requires that 5 years of out-of-state experience be recognized, but Bartlesville for many years has recognized 8 years of out-of-state experience. Now all teachers in the district, beginning in 2015-2016, will shift on the salary schedule to a step reflecting all accumulated out-of-state experience up to the limits of the schedule.

Both the addition of Step 27 and recognizing out-of-state experience will need to be formalized when the BEA team bargains with the board team on June 9 to develop a new Tentative Agreement for 2015-2016, subject to teacher and board ratification in August.

Detailed Budget Changes

Below is a summary of the various changes in the budget approved by the board:

I have been personally involved in district budget development for 20 years. I've seen better years but I've also seen much worse. Unfortunately, I do not expect things to improve next year. Voters have returned to state government many legislators and a governor who presided over the largest percentage cuts in education funding of any state in the nation. Their rhetoric about supporting schools is as empty as the state coffers they drained with foolish and destructive cuts in the income tax rates. It would not surprise me if we are forced to conduct a work stoppage in the coming years like the one we mounted to support the HB 1017 education reform law back in 1990. Our legislature and governor have dismantled many of the improvements of HB 1017, and teachers and parents must band together to demand change.