Lawmakers Seek Priorities in Educational Funding Requests
Marie Price The Journal Record, THE JOURNAL RECORD
"We don't have this kind of money," Rep. Jack Begley, D- Goodwell, told his budget subcommittee Wednesday, a sentiment he repeated at least three times to officials seeking additional funding for the public schools, higher education and career- technology programs for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Begley said that the three branches of education are asking for many times more than the $100 million his subcommittee was allocated to spread among them and a dozen other agencies.
Actually, the subcommittee chair said, after setting aside $5.6 million to upgrade the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority to digital television capability and setting aside about $10 million for all the other agencies, there may be as little as $90 million for common education, colleges and universities and vo-tech.
Begley said that a top priority will be funding a mandated 1 percent increase in employer contributions to the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System.
For the public schools, he said, this could cost $35 million total for this year and the next, although a budget document supplied to the subcommittee pegs the cost at $48 million.
He also considers boosting textbook funding as taking precedence over other needs. Increasing these funds from $32 to $70 per pupil would cost $23 million, Begley noted.
Another priority, Begley told State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, is funding the flexible benefit allowance for school support personnel, which carries a $14.6 million price tag.
"That's most of the money," Begley said.
Garrett said that she understands the needs of the other branches of education, but that the State Board of Education is mandated to develop its own budgeting priorities for the public schools.
Initially the board's priority list topped $398 million, and even the pared-down top-10 list she submitted Wednesday comes to more than $302 million.
Leading the list is $117.5 million more for financial support of schools, a need Garrett said is fueled mainly by student population growth, maintenance needs and other operating costs.
Second is $84.4 million for a 5 percent increase in the minimum salary schedule for certified teachers, third $8.7 million to add five steps to the salary schedule for career teachers.
Garrett said that many career teachers are leaving the schools due to low salaries at the higher career steps. The agency is also asking for $13.8 million to increase textbook funding from $32 to $55 per pupil. Another $30 million would go toward incentives for teachers in critical shortage areas.
Asked by Rep. Terry Ingmire, R-Stillwater, to name a couple of priorities within the limitations placed on the subcommittee, Garrett said that the retirement mandate would be number one, followed by increasing textbook funding.
Begley made the same cautionary statement to higher education Chancellor Hans Brisch, noting that the State Regents for Higher Education have requested an additional $150 million for each of the next two years.
Brisch listed $33 million in mandated costs, $84.7 million for the regents "Brain Gain" program to boost the number of Oklahoma college graduates, $2. …