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School Funds Can’t Make the Grade in Failing Oil States

Associated Press

Barbara Casey teaches first grade in a school barely a mile from the spot where Oklahoma’s first big gusher soaked the prairie 80 years ago. But oil is not her favorite topic these days.

“I’d much rather be filling my gas tank for $20. It makes me nervous to fill up for $8,” she told a visitor to this rural town half an hour’s drive south of Tulsa.

Oklahoma’s schools have already been hurt by a state budget crisis spawned by falling oil prices: Salaries are frozen, classrooms are more crowded, buses need repairs and textbooks go unreplaced.

Casey is one of Oklahoma’s luckier teachers: Her $15,000 salary probably will not go up next year, but she knows she will have a job in the fall. An estimated 2,000 of Oklahoma’s 40,000 teachers have received termination notices for next fall. Depending which way oil prices go, and what choices school districts make, some of them could be hired back come September.

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Everyone fears worse news ahead, in the 1987 school year and beyond, unless oil prices recover dramatically, and quickly. Few in the state expect that to happen; oil prices, although edging up from the low of $10 a barrel reached April 1, still stand at just over half the $31 high recorded in late November.

Barbara Blevins at Wilson Middle School is one of 270 teachers in Tulsa with the least seniority who last month received layoff notices by certified mail. Tulsa school officials predict that only about 50 will actually lose their jobs next fall since about 200 older teachers accepted early retirement incentives.

“I’m very depressed about it,” said Blevins, who has a doctorate and 12 years’ teaching experience but lost her job because she had only a year’s seniority in Tulsa. She says she will leave teaching next fall.

“It just hit me when I saw the letter, that everything we have gained for our children in Oklahoma in the last 10 years is being lost,” she said.

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School districts across this state, which produced enough oil wealth in the early 1980s to boost the average teacher salary from 44th place among the 50 states to 38th in the current school year ($21,419), are now nervously awaiting word of what education cuts the Legislature plans for next year.

School reform is clashing with hard economic times. Several years ago, the state mandated smaller elementary classes. The maximum pupil-teacher ratio is now 24 to 1, and next year it is scheduled to go to 23 to 1. But the state has not appropriated money to help districts hire more teachers or take other steps to cut class size, so local educators are now pressing legislators for a postponement.

Oklahoma City Supt. Arthur Steller said the class size mandate would cost his district $600,000 unless the state comes up with aid. “If we have to come up with that money, we’d probably have to increase class size at other grade levels,” he said.

While next fall promises to be rough, educators see the real crunch coming later, in 1987 and 1988. Any reserve funds school districts managed to hoard in better times will be gone, and the relatively easy budget cuts will have been made. That will leave two painful options: eliminating programs and laying off thousands more teachers.

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The state estimates a $467-million budget deficit for 1986-87 because of vanishing oil revenues. Schools face a 10% cut of $83 million in state aid. But that

estimate is based on $18-a-barrel oil, so the true deficit could be considerably greater.

Counting that 10% cut, state spending on education in Oklahoma will have increased by less than 1% in five years.

“We’ve done all the things the reform movement 2says we should do. We have the teacher requirements, we have the tests. But we just don’t have the money,” said Oklahoma state Supt. John M. Folks.

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‘Please Buy Oil’

Larry Zenke, Tulsa’s highly regarded school superintendent, recalled that when his city was flush with oil money a few years back, he would kid superintendents from less fortunate Northern cities about “how great it was to be from an OPEC state. Now I’m apologizing, and asking them to please buy some oil.”

Oil has not been Glenpool’s economic lifeblood for decades, but Supt. Gae Wilson said the town still illustrates how sagging oil prices are affecting all Oklahoma school districts.

Glenpool’s school population soared to 1,505 in 1985 from 270 in 1968, and the district has had to borrow up to its constitutional limits to build new schools. But Wilson said lower oil prices had hurt her district because 70% of its revenues come from the state. And state education dollars overall are scarcer because of the oil slide.

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With funds too scarce to build classrooms quickly enough, some classes in Glenpool now meet in hallways.

The Oklahoma City district, which faces a budget deficit of at least $6 million next fall if the 10% state aid reduction is enacted, is freezing staff rosters, offering teachers early retirement and charging students $50 for driver education.

Other States’ Problems

Public education reform is in similar jeopardy in other oil-producing states:

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- In Texas, which loses about $70 million in state revenues for every dollar per barrel that oil prices drop, Gov. Mark White has asked the education department and all other agencies to absorb a 13% cut in funds. The state’s career ladder program, providing higher pay and more responsibility to able teachers, may not be fully funded.

“Teachers are leaving because they’re just fed up,” said Dean Corrigan, dean of education at Texas A&M; University. “There’s an awful morale problem among experienced teachers. We may just lose the best.”

Houston, a national beacon of school reform for the past decade but now wrestling with a $65-million deficit, will see some of its most innovative programs eroded next year. Magnet schools are being cut 10%, and 20 of 25 all-year schools will return to traditional nine-month terms. Planned reductions in grade school class size in 1988-89 are considered unlikely.

- Alaska’s Gov. Bill Sheffield is proposing a $37-million cut in the state’s $493-million school budget next year. School rolls in Anchorage and Juneau are already shrinking as oil-related jobs disappear. Salary freezes, layoffs and cutbacks in the “Learn Alaska” program that beams course work via satellite to students in remote areas are all likely next year.

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- The Louisiana Legislature is considering cuts for elementary and secondary education totaling about $66 million, including eliminating 893 special education teaching positions and 342 special education aides. It proposes lowering salaries for principals and other administrators by paying them for nine months rather than a full year.

Summer Class Cuts

The state is also likely to end standardized testing of elementary school youngsters; that would save money by eliminating summer classes for children who fail the second, fourth or fifth grades.

The oil crisis in these states has school officials crusading for more equitable property taxes and for budgets less dependent on oil and farming.

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But in Oklahoma especially, a rural state with strong populist traditions where state power is mistrusted and taxes is a dirty word, change is likely to be difficult politically.

Educators pressed unsuccessfully this year to get legislators to back a state lottery or horse racing to help finance schools. And in an election year, the odds for passing new taxes to bail out schools are considered near zero.

An especially stubborn obstacle for educators in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana is that county tax assessors in those states, as in 25 others, are elected rather than appointed.

Thwarted by Assessors

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The result: School districts may set local property tax rates as high as the state permits, but they are thwarted time and again by assessors who judge homes well below true market values.

In effect, tax assessors often pit homeowners against the schools.

“The assessors say, ‘I don’t want anyone kicked out of their homes,’ ” said Wilson, Glenpool’s superintendent.

Tax inequities are further compounded because the formula for distributing state education funds to school districts is based on the property valuations.

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Glaring contrasts result among neighboring districts. Glenpool, with little local industry to tax, pays teachers only the minimum state-mandated salary and has no fancy auditoriums or art facilities.

Affluent District

But in nearby Jenks, an upper-income bedroom community with a power utility and other industries that pay millions in taxes, teachers on average are paid $2,000 more a year than those in Glenpool. The high school contains a magnificent auditorium, an Olympic-size pool and a modern gym big enough to accommodate three simultaneous basketball games.

Asked whether tax reform might come in time to stave off further education cuts, Tulsa Supt. Zenke said: “It just isn’t going to happen.”

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The poor outlook for tax reform has left some school officials wondering whether educational quality can be raised in the years ahead.

“Where we go beyond next year I’m not certain,” Zenke said. “We’ve cut what we can cut. After that, it’ll have a very serious impact in terms of quality of education.”


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