Hofmeister: More at Stake for Schools than Teacher Pay

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Trevor Brown/Oklahoma Watch

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Education Department staff members present data and reasons for the department's budget request at a legislative hearing Wednesday.

It will take more than passing a sizable pay raise for teachers to solve Oklahoma’s education funding needs, according to the state’s public schools chief.

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told lawmakers Wednesday that the Department of Education is seeking $2.6 billion in state funds for next fiscal year – a $221 million increase over its current spending level.

That money doesn’t include one of the department’s top priorities: an additional $282.4 million to be used as part of a multi-year compensation plan that would give teachers a $3,000 salary hike and pay for four additional instruction days.

Since the defeat of State Question 779, which proposed a sales tax hike to pay for a teacher salary increase, the question of how and whether the Legislature will give teachers a raise has been one of the biggest issues heading into the session, which begins next month.

That topic also dominated much of Wednesday’s nearly six-hour legislative hearing on the Department of Education’s budget.

Hofmeister told lawmakers that despite the state’s nearly $900 million shortfall, there is a “moral and constitutional” duty to ensure the entire K-12 system is properly funded.

“We recognize that this is one of the largest requests that will be brought to you this year,” she said, “but the need is great.”

The Department of Education’s budget requests (beyond this year’s appropriations) include:
– $56.7 million for financial support of public schools.
– $66.2 million for instruction materials.
– $39.3 million for employee health care costs.
– $38.2 million for public school activities (including early-childhood programs, testing, reading sufficiency, Advanced Placement training and fee assistance and standards implementation.)
– $15 million for the Empowering Teachers to Lead pilot program.
– $6.6 million for administrative sand support functions.

The extra $56.7 million for financial support to public schools – funding that would be based on based on the state’s funding formula – is what is needed to keep up with enrollment grow over the next year.

The current fiscal year’s support is at $1.87 billion. That’s slightly more than the past few years, but still below the 2010 level of $1.89 billion.

Meanwhile average daily student membership has climbed from 647,879 in 2010 to 686,281 in 2016. The weighted average student daily membership – a figure that takes into account special-needs students and other factors – increased from 1,021,723 to 1,122,952 during that time.

Hofmeister said she would have to ask for an additional $300 million over her request if they wanted to bring the per-pupil funding in line with the 2010 level.

“That’s not something we wanted to bring to you,” she told the lawmakers.

Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders from both parties have said passing a teacher-pay package is one of their top priorities for the legislative session. But paying for the plan won’t be an easy task given the sizable shortfall.

It could be even more difficult for the Legislature to accept the department’s additional funding requests because other agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, are also seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

During a question-and-answer period following Hofmeister’s presentation, several lawmakers pressed the superintendent on many of the requests and whether savings can be found in the existing budget.

Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City, additionally released a statement afterward saying he didn’t think the budget request offered “real solutions.”

“Instead she presented a plan replete with big-ticket funding of districts without accountability for how those dollars are spent related to education results,” he said.

The agency budget hearings, a new process under Speaker Rep. Charles McCall, R-Atoka, will continue this and next week for the Department of Transportation, Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect amount for the total proposed budget for fiscal 2018. The total being sought is $2.6 billion, not $2.4 billion.