Latest Funding Debacle Due To Ignorance at State Department?

Post date: Jul 4, 2011 12:38:22 PM

It appears that the latest funding debacle to face Oklahoma's public schools, the state's failure to pay for 1/6 of the cost of the mandatory Flexible Benefit Allowance (FBA), may be due to the ignorance of State Department of Education officials on how school district finances operate.

The Flexible Benefit Allowance provides mandatory monthly funding for health insurance coverage for district employees:

On July 4 the Tulsa World published an article where State Superintendent Barresi said the department saved money in the budget for fiscal year 2012, which runs from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012, by only funding the FBA through June 30, 2012 instead of funding it through August as in the past.

What she and other state department officials reportedly failed to grasp is that school district employment contracts, which run on the fiscal year system, must pay out a teacher's entire contract during the fiscal year. Bartlesville teachers are familiar with how they receive three checks in June - the extra paychecks on June 22 and June 29 are what people think of as their "July" and "August" paychecks, but they are actually final payments for the fiscal year contract.

Note well that for years some teachers have had their "July" and "August" paychecks held on their behalf until July 15 and August 15. That will no longer be an option in 2012 since all paychecks will be paid via direct deposit. If you are used to having your paycheck held for you, you MUST learn to budget competently to tide you over the summer break! A recommended practice is to immediately transfer the money from the June 22 and June 29 paychecks, which are deposited into your checking account, to a savings account at your bank. Then "pay yourself" the amount of each check by transferring the funds back into your checking account on July 15 and August 15.

The effect of this budgeting decision by the state department, which was hurriedly approved by the State Board of Education by Barresi's tie-breaking vote when some board members said there had not been sufficient time for consideration, is that districts will not receive any money from the state to pay the final two FBA payments for fiscal year 2012. In our case, that means no state funding for the FBA payments on June 22 and June 29, 2012. If the State Board of Education does not reallocate the budget or the legislature provide supplemental funding, districts will have to pay 1/6 of the entire cost of the FBA out of their already deeply cut local funds. Bartlesville Finance Director Tim Green reports that could leave our district with a shortfall in FBA funding for 2011-2012 of about $520,000 - an increase of $120,000 over the shortfall it already experienced in FBA for 2010-2011.

It is not surprising that the State Department of Education could make such a mistake when you consider that Superintendent Barresi began her term of office with a fight with the State Board of Education over the qualifications of her candidates for several posts. The Board refused to approve the hiring of Jill Geiger as the director of finance. It also refused to approve the hiring of Jennifer Carter as chief of staff and Damon Gardenhire as spokesman. Board members objected how the latter two were already in place at the department and being paid by the private Communities Foundation of Oklahoma. When informed by a board member that their hirings were illegal, Barresi bristled and called the charges outrageous. The Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor would later strip the State Board of Education of oversight of personnel of the State Department of Education. Only at the end of the legislative session, when it was a moot point, would the Republican Attorney General finally issue an opinion that the hirings were illegal and Carter and Gardenhire were usurpers. Notably, Barresi never publicly apologized nor even admitted to breaking the law, and both Carter and Gardenhire remain on staff.

Now it appears the chickens have come home to roost. The moment the State Board of Education ceded control of personnel to Barresi, the now-legal chief of staff Jennifer Carter immediately fired Jack Herron, the Assistant State Superintendent for Financial Services, and Shannon Ainsworth, an 11-year employee in purchasing. At a press conference Herron stated that Barresi had left him unable to perform his duties for months. Shannon Ainsworth, who worked in purchasing and was fired after 11 years of employment, said, "You have no one left in the building who knows what they are doing. There's a lot of tension and a lot of stress."

The latest fiasco lends credence to the claims of these disgruntled former employees. The State Department of Education does not appear to know what it is doing.