MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

March 31, 2013

School funds uncertain

Changes could cut fed kindergarten money

By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Muskogee Public Schools is playing a shell game with the budget as they await news about passage of several laws, a finance official said.

“I have five different scenarios to consider based on several bills and budget cuts,” said MPS Chief Financial Officer John Little.

Congress recently announced a 5 percent cut to federal education grants, which will leave the district with $500,000 less in grant money beginning the next fiscal year.

And in 2014, the Health Care For America plan could require health insurance to be provided to some substitute teachers.

Most pressing is the state mandate making kindergarten full-day at all districts, which goes into effect July 1, Little said.

MPS has been using federal funds, Title I money, to pay for full-day kindergarten for 20 years, Little said. It is one of maybe two or three districts in the state using federal funds to pay kindergarten teacher salaries, he said.

If the state mandates full-day kindergarten, the $700,000 used from Title I can no longer be used. Any state-mandated program in education cannot be funded through federal funds, he said.

A bill that passed the House but is still waiting to get through committee in the Senate will put a stop to the mandate.

HB1395 amends the mandate to say full-day kindergarten is optional — but the Senate only has one week to get it through committee or it will have to wait until the next legislative session.

If the HB1395 isn’t passed, full-day becomes mandated and Little has to find $700,000 in the general fund to continue paying for kindergarten teachers.

The law provides state aid for 1/2 day or full-day kindergarten students, but it won’t make any difference for MPS.

“State aid given for kindergartners is already being used toward other salaries,” Little said. “We’ve been using the Title I funds the whole time. Back in the early ’90s it was one of those new ideas, and schools like us decided if we could get kids in class more, we could give them a better education.”

Little said the looming $500,000 federal budget cuts aren’t as pressing, at least not until 2015.

“We’ve been very lucky with the number of teachers retiring, and we knew this was coming. We’ve saved some dimes,” Little said. “But in 2015, we’ll have reached the point we’ve done everything we can think of and we have to look at other options.”



Preparing for worst,

hoping for best

The mandated full-day kindergarten could result in a number of things, including keeping teachers from getting pay raises and increasing class sizes.

Little said there is a “best case scenario.”

“The bond issue passes May 14, this law (HB1395) passes, 25 teachers decide they want to retire and ad valorem tax revenue goes up — then I hit the best case of every scenario,” he said.

MPS will have a bond issue on the May ballot that won’t raise taxes, Little said.

That bond issue could give Little $1 million more to use toward the basics — teachers, supplies, electric bills etc., he said.

“If it passes, we can get the step increase for all staff, add the teachers we want for new programs, and keep our class sizes the same,” Little said.



Local legislators

support bill

A secretary for the Oklahoma State Senate said Thursday that HB1395 wasn’t on the agenda last week. That means it can’t be read in committee this week and taken to the floor for a vote.

Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, is on the Senate Education Committee, but hasn’t yet seen HB1395.

Garrison said Friday afternoon he was notified of some bills being added to the Education Committee’s agenda late Thursday night, though he did not have a list of which bills were added.

Garrison said he thinks they’ll get HB1395 heard in time, but if not, they’ll try to do the same thing they did in 2012 to postpone the mandate.

“Last year, we got it extended a year, but it would be a nightmare, not only in Muskogee, but across the state and especially for growing districts,” Garrison said. “We’d have to try and get an amendment attached to another bill and give them another year’s grace.”

State Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, is on the House Education Committee that handled HB1395 before it was passed 82-9 in the House.

Cannaday said he hopes the Senate recognizes the need to pass HB1395.

“This is a very critical bill. I hope everybody understands in the Senate that, if it fails, that will impact Title I funds,” Cannaday said. “The House side vote was overwhelming, and it needs to be the same in the Senate.”

Cannaday said it may sound contradictory to be against mandating full-day kindergarten.

“Because you want all-day kindergarten, but the moment you do it, then it becomes a state-funded entity,” he said. “And if we make it mandatory, we lose access to that federal revenue.”



Health insurance

mandate problematic

The health insurance issue isn’t entirely clear yet, Little said, but the district may have to start providing health insurance for some substitute teachers, and that will have a big financial impact as well.

The Health Care For America plan calls for substitutes working more than 30 hours a week to be provided health coverage and continue to have health coverage provided for another six months after they stop working more than 30 hours.

“Say you have a teacher out for long-term medical — They don’t like putting in a different sub every day because of the kids — and that teacher is in there 35 hours per week,” Little said. “Then, we have to provide health insurance for them. Even when they go back to working one or two days a week, I still have to provide insurance to them for another six months.”

Little said he has a lot of questions on the issue, but he’s preparing for the extra cost, just in case.

“Is the state going to help fund that?” he said. “That’s another thing we have to work into our budget. Do we then make a policy you can’t work more than four days a week as a sub? I just don’t know how that’s going to affect us yet.”

Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or wburton@muskogeephoenix.com.