Saturday, June 25, 2011

Barresi Explains With Less Funds New Budget Focuses On What's Best For Students

A Responsible Budget for State Education
By Janet Barresi, State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Friday, June 24, 2011

In difficult financial times, when you sit down to plan your household budget, you’re often faced with hard choices. Perhaps you’ll defer new purchases or cut back on things you can no longer afford.
As education leaders, we can't budget based on money that doesn't exist. We have to deal with real dollars and real numbers. It would be wrong to build a budget on shifting sand. It would be wrong to provide false hope if funds simply aren't there. You wouldn’t do it with your household budget, and I certainly won’t do it with taxpayers’ money.
On June 23, the State Board of Education approved a fiscal year 2012 budget for the state’s school activities fund, a more than $401 million portion of the annual state education budget.
This is the third year for a state budget shortfall. We have to work smarter with less, and we’ve made difficult decisions about funding for programs.
Above all, our focus has been on what is best for students.
A short breakdown of the numbers helps explain the financial realities we face. Overall, the state faced a $500 million shortfall this year. At the end of the legislative session in May, Oklahoma’s education budget received a 4.1 percent cut (a nearly $100 million reduction).
The $401 million school activities budget provides money for a variety of instructional programs. It is part of an overall $2.27 billion education budget that includes $1.89 billion already set aside for financial support of schools (automatically passing through Oklahoma’s state aid funding formula). 
In planning the $401 million school activities fund, our first priority was to focus on core areas of student learning and achievement -- and to honor the state’s commitment to fully fund teacher retirement and health benefits for teachers and school district employees.
Teachers’ retirement and health benefit budget items alone amount to more than $330 million, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for other expenditures. But I’ve said from the first day I took office that I was committed to ensuring that teachers’ retirement and health benefits were fully funded so that local school administrators can plan ahead. 

Dr. Janet Barresi
State Superintendent of
Public Instruction
With this budget, we’ve empowered local school officials to make decisions about what’s best for their districts. Local school officials also have flexibility to use additional funds to pay for bonuses for teachers.
With the dollars left after funding health benefits and teachers’ retirement, our primary focus has been on those things that have the biggest impact on kids in the classroom. For example, we funded reading sufficiency programs to make sure kids will be able to read at grade level. We funded remediation for those students struggling with ACE graduation requirements. We funded Agriculture in the Classroom programs to serve a clear need in rural communities.
Certainly, many programs were also cut. For example, we slashed the charter schools incentive fund to zero.
This is a challenging year, but I believe we’ve been able to strike a good balance by making sure that the needs of students are met first and foremost.
Taxpayers must deal with financial realities when planning household expenses. We should expect nothing less from state government.
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