Stacy Martin and Patrick B. McGuigan
The Oklahoma Education Association, the self-described, largest teacher’s association in Oklahoma, wants a $100 million across-the board raise for teachers passed during this year’s legislative session. However, there is evidence that some school districts and leadership misrepresent and waste some of the billions in state and federal funding already in place.
“Our public school teachers’ salaries already exceed the market-determined teacher salaries in Oklahoma’s private sector,” said Brandon Dutcher, vice president of policy for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market “think tank” in Oklahoma City.
“Rather than evaluating Oklahoma teachers as individual professionals — giving big raises to rock-star teachers, and getting rid of mediocre and poor teachers — this idea of across-the-board raises treats teachers like interchangeable, unskilled laborers.
“Oklahoma’s waitresses, nurses and accountants don’t get across-the-board raises — and they certainly don’t enjoy the same level of job security teachers have,” Dutcher commented. "Why should they have to give their hard-earned money to people who aren’t getting the job done? It makes no sense.”
This CapitolBeatOK story launches an investigation into school spending patterns, ascertained using multiple Oklahoma transparency web sites and sources advocated and implemented by lawmakers and state officials.
Examination of these records is part of a broad and sustained examination of Oklahoma’s public school financing, spending and fiscal policies -- focusing initially on rural and suburban districts. Urban districts will be examined in future stories.
Some highlights of issues this investigation will probe:
• Excessive spending resulting from the state's abundance of school districts, many of which are located closely together and very small. Many could combine resources or consolidate. Because there are more than 520 school districts, administrative costs are driven up exponentially.
• Many small school districts employ large staffs within districts relative to school populations.
• Millions of dollars in high, outside legal fees exist – in many cases going to the controversial and well-connected law firm Rosenstein Fist Ringold.
• A dysfunctional system of stacking of duties resulting in extra duty pay among district leadership and employees. These extra duties are not illegal unless school boards have failed to approve them. Their necessity in some districts might be questionable.
• The State could save or reallocate nearly $400 million if districts aligned their teacher corps with the national 15.5:1 student-teacher ratio.
The problems driving these issues are numerous and systemic because they have been long embedded in the system, said one observer, who has served for decades in education leadership capacities. The source provided no data, but reviewed financial aspects of this article for accuracy.
“There isn’t just one answer,” said the observer, who insisted on anonymity for this article. “It’s all very complicated.”
At least part of what is driving spending is the fact that many districts identify themselves as having many low-income students, triggering millions in extra federal assistance. CapitolBeatOK is examining if this money is spent as intended by federal law.
Title I is a section of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that is aimed at helping low-income students who are at high risk of failing in school. Money flows to school districts, which distribute it to individual schools based on their low-income enrollment. Title I is one of the largest areas of federal education spending.
The OEA, the state's largest teachers’ association, asserts that teachers don't earn enough. However, their average pay is far more than the state's per capita average, which includes other professionals. Regular certified educators earn average total compensation of $47,000 annually, but many teachers with certain assignments and other district personnel make far more.
The push for a teacher pay hike comes even as failure characterizes many of the outcomes in Oklahoma public education.
Many districts across the state have failed for so long that a federally-approved effort is underway for a near-takeover of many parts of Oklahoma’s education system by the state Department of Education.
The OEA reports in its current “Education Focus” member newspaper on the desired, across-the-board $2,000 teacher salary hike as one of its 2012 legislative goals.
The state of Oklahoma has roughly 666,000 school children and about 51,000 certified educators.
If student-teacher ratios were closer to the roughly 15.5.1 national average, more dollars would be available to better pay individual teachers to focus more on their primary expertise areas, rather than stacking duties.
If student-teacher ratios were aligned with the national average, that $400 million or some portion of it could be redirected to classroom resources – addressing a long-term complaint of teachers associations and educators. But much of that money apparently goes into administrators’ and education system employees’ wallets. Succinctly put, one significant reason for lack of classroom resources is education employees and district leaders themselves.
The mere existence of more than 520 school districts gives rise to 2,230 individual school sites, creating enormous overhead expenses for taxpayers. So far, CapitolBeatOK has studied selected data from several hundred rural and suburban districts.
The OEA’s contentions feed a widely held belief that Oklahoma teachers are hardly compensated sufficiently for their expertise and commitment.
What the OEA leadership does not discuss is that many educators, depending on their assignments, already receive more pay than the state average for teachers, depending on their specialty. (See chart accompanying this story.).
Outside legal fees are a major budget-buster in many districts too, particularly in the Tulsa area, where controversial law firm Rosenstein Fist Ringold is deeply involved in absorbing millions in taxpayer dollars as outside legal counsel. The firm has claimed on its web site it represents hundreds of Oklahoma districts.
The Tulsa Public School District alone paid $800,000 in outside legal fees last year. Rosenstein serves in an outside legal counsel capacity. A future report will detail outside legal fees in several parts of the state.
Recently, the Rosenstein firm vigorously lobbied (successfully) to defeat a proposed law capping school district outside legal fees at $250 an hour. Rosenstein has not yet responded to calls from CapitolBeatOK for comment.
In regard to other spending patterns, Adair County provides a prime example of excess. There are hundreds more districts located closely together, affirming the need for examination for possible consolidation or resource-sharing.
Adair County has seven small school districts in one small town -- Stilwell. Many appear to employ more staff than necessary.
Although education spending has accelerated dramatically in some districts, taken as a whole, the spending practices outlined here have been going on for years, long preceding the current administration of Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
The department had no comment on any findings of this story. However, the agency has declared since Barresi assumed office its intention to scrutinize and improve districts across Oklahoma.
Note: This is one of several in depth education investigations to appear in Oklahoma City's The City Sentinel and on CapitolBeatOK.com. It captures information from multiple open records accessed from transparency web sources and web sites advocated and put in place by lawmakers, state officials and organizations, including the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.