Teacher pay raise plan backfires on rural districts

Oklahoma City- A new state law granting a pay raise to every Oklahoma teacher has backfired in some rural districts and actually forced layoffs, Oklahoma lawmakers learned on Oct. 18.

“I don't think any legislator voted for a pay raise thinking it would force schools to get rid of teachers,” said State Rep. Gus Blackwell, (R-Goodwell), who requested a legislative study on the issue. “But the reality is that many schools had to let go of teachers to fund the pay raise.”

This year's mandated teacher pay raise created shortfalls in more than 200 school districts in Oklahoma because the raise was not funded through a specific line-item appropriation, school officials said.

Until this year, a specific line-item appropriation had been used to fund $3,000 of every Oklahoma teacher's annual salary. But this year, funding for that $3,000 plus an additional $1,300 raise for every teacher was run through a school funding formula that attempts to equalize funding throughout Oklahoma 's more than 500 school districts.

As a result of that change, nearly half of schools actually experienced a reduction in state funding, although most saw only minimal cuts. However, more than a dozen districts that receive the majority of their revenue from local property taxes faced major reductions in state aid, including several in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Officials from several of those schools said they lost $18,000 to $53,000 per year as a result of the change. Those schools have budgets of only $1 million per year, making it difficult to find savings in any area but personnel.

As a result, some schools have fired teachers or simply left positions vacant, and others have spent down surplus savings even though their transportation costs are skyrocketing.

Blackwell said the schools could have handled the transition if only part of the raise was run through the state formula this year instead of the entire sum of $4,300 per teacher.

To help schools handle the transition, he proposed that more than $4.9 million be given to the shortchanged schools through a line-item appropriation. Blackwell said that approach could be phased out in several years after the schools had absorbed the entire cost of the teacher pay raise.

He noted the $4.9 million is a tiny fraction of total state spending on common education.

“For one-fourth of 1 percent of all school funding we could solve this problem,” said Blackwelll.

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