State Funding For Public School Facilities Isn’t Equal, Experts Say; Supermajority Vote Requirement Hampers Small Schools

by Scott Carter

OKLAHOMA CITY – State funding for Oklahoma’s public school facilities isn’t always equal and often depends on the student’s zip code, the director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association said this week.

Speaking at a legislative hearing on funding for traditional public schools and publicly-funded charter schools, Shawn Hime, the executive director of the OSSBA, said some school districts have per pupil valuations of between $5,000 and $6,000 per student while other districts have per pupil valuations that are “hundreds of thousands of dollars per student.”

“You zip code determines facility conditions,” he said. He said part of the problem was caused by a lack of ‘fire walls’ between funding sources.

“It’s really not that clear,” he said. “There are of dollars that you can use from building funds and bond funds that some schools are using, having to use general fund for because they don’t have those capital dollars.”

As an example, Hime pointed to the Enid district where, he said, district officials used bond funds to purchase textbooks.

Jim Matthews, superintendent for the New Lima School District, said facilities and infrastructure remain a problem for his district.

“Facility funding in rural schools really comes down to rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” he said. “The major way to achieve facility funding, of course, is to have a high evaluation, high tax base in your district. If you have that great. If you don’t you’re in trouble and the other one is to be able to pass a bond for construction of facilities.”

Matthews said his district – which includes the small town of Lima, population 53 – has no economic base. “Our school has no business. We have no stores. We have no post office. We’re just a school sitting out there. We just sit out in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

Matthews said his district has about 275 students, with 75 of those in high school. He said the New Lima district continues to put money into its dilapidated buildings because his district, like other small districts, is “in a desperate fight to keep from being consolidated.”

“That right,” he said, “the dreaded C-word scares a lot of us when we get in that situation. They put one more nail in the coffin for rural Oklahoma when you do that.”

Still, a lack of a stable economic base isn’t Matthew’s only concern. He said the state law that requires a supermajority vote to approve school bond issues continues to hamper smaller school district.

“One of the big problems for us, let’s say we did try to pass a bond, is the famous super majority rule; 60 percent of the voters have to vote to pass the bond,” he said. “I’ve asked my legislators over the past two years, 10 or 20 times about why in the world do we have to keep a 60 percent supermajority. And all they ever tell me is that it’s untouchable. I’ve heard that a bunch of times. It’s a really big problem for us. Don’t see what the problem is if the majority of your people want to vote a bond for your school.”

Rural districts aren’t the only district that receive less funding.

Russ Simnic, a senior director for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said several studies show that charter school students receive about $2,300 less per public than students who attend a traditional brick and mortar school.

Simnic pointed to a 2010 study from Ball State University that reported a 19.2 percent gap in funding for charter schools and traditional schools.

 “That adds up when you have a school of 100, 200 or 300 students,” he said.

 Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, said a study by the national on-line learning association, iNACOL, showed the operating costs of online programs were about the same as the operating costs of a regular brick and mortar school.

“You can see that at the end of 2018 the schools in Oklahoma are actually receiving a little less than that percentage,” she said.

State lawmakers will continue their study of charter school funding during at another interim hearing scheduled September 18.  

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