BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Between 2009 and 2015, amid great fanfare, Bill and Melinda Gates pumped $215 million of their foundation’s money into a program that pulled $360 million from public school budgets in Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. The goal was to create a reliable teacher evaluation system.
Four charter school management organizations spearheaded the project and after six years and more than $575 million spent, it was discovered that standardized high stakes testing of students did not produce a reliable means of teacher evaluation.
The study was the classic definition of the word “boondoggle” and Oklahoma is not immune from these expensive “sounds too good to be true” rhetorical goose chases. Consequently, millions of dollars of our state’s budget is diverted to private companies that promised to root out waste or discover fraud and, after making campaign contributions, receive contracts that produce no return on the investment.
On Nov. 6, Oklahomans will consider SQ 801 to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to “allow” schools to use its ad valorem-derived building fund for general operational costs, including teacher salaries.
Proponents say the technical change is necessary so that a school board could use the school’s five mill “building fund” for purposes other than maintenance of property.
Historically, the five mill building fund could only be used for maintenance and repair operations, upkeep and construction of district facilities and grounds, contractual services and salaries and benefits of custodial and maintenance people.
According to publications of the Oklahoma State Department of Education and current research, the Oklahoma attorney general has previously opined that it is legal to use the building fund money to pay casualty and property insurance premiums on school buildings and to construct a school parking lot.
Oklahoma State School Boards Association Executive Director Shawn Hime has expressed concern that schools’ building funds are not adequate for day-to-day janitorial and other facility needs. Under current practice, schools have to save year-to-year to take care of renovation and repairs and that the proposal will not change any districts per pupil funding.
He concluded that he had “not hear from one single district that says they need to have more freedom with their building fund.”
Administrators from across the state echoed Hime’s fear that the SQ 801 may be an attempt by the Legislature and Gov. Fallin to avoid proper funding of education and an attempt to shift the responsibility to local school districts.
Morrison Superintendent Jay Vernon said, “We do not, nor have ever had, enough building fund monies to support all our utilities, maintenance and janitorial staff salaries for a year.”
Republican Sen. Ron Sharp of Shawnee, in opposing SQ 801, expressed concern that ad valorem revenue is not equal among school districts and that the inequity would inevitably cause a federal lawsuit.
Oklahoma’s public schools do not need a boondoggle. They do not need to be told to rob an empty building fund account to pay teacher salaries. Shifting the responsibility of funding education is not the answer.
School districts across the state where the property tax base is small or is largely based on agricultural real estate do not have the ability to meet the financial needs without adequate state funding. Allowing the Legislature to abdicate its responsibility to fund K-12 education will result in one of two things: increases in local ad valorem taxes or closure. Neither is acceptable.
– Chickasha’s David Perryman serves District 56 in the Oklahoma House and is House Democratic Floor Leader