In Aurora Lora’s first 30 days as superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, she had to develop a plan to cut $30 million from the district’s budget.
“It devastated our schools,” Lora said this morning during a press conference in front Sequoyah Elementary School in northwest OKC.
Lora and board member Mark Mann announced that the board will be asked in a special meeting Monday to grant approval for speaking with law firms about suing the Oklahoma Legislature. The potential suit would question funding levels that might violate certain state constitutional requirements.
“We just can’t keep doing this,” Lora said. “Our kids need us to stand up and demand that we have adequate funding for them to get a great education in this state.”
Mann cited Article 13 Section 6 of the state constitution as a potential area that the Legislature has fallen short of meeting. That section says “the Legislature shall provide for a system of textbooks for the common schools of the State, and the State through appropriate legislation shall furnish such textbooks free of cost for use by all pupils therein.”
Lora said OKCPS was supposed to adopt new math textbooks last year but did not have the budget. Other cuts have resulted in educator and administrator layoffs, as well as decreased funding for athletic and arts programs.
“It’s a point of critical mass,” Mann said of the textbook needs. He said many of the books currently used by the district are out of print, meaning the district may not have enough books for each student. Some books are assigned to classrooms instead.
“That is something the Constitution clearly says the Legislature must provide free of charge to every child. We haven’t had dedicated textbook or construction material funding for over two years,” Mann said. “We’re at a point where kids can’t take books home anymore because we can’t afford to lose them because they can’t be replaced.”
House Speaker fires back
Mann noted that any potential lawsuit might name House and Senate GOP leaders personally.
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) released a fiery statement around noon Thursday that pushed back on the OKCPS lawsuit suggestion.
He also offered criticism of OKCPS stewardship of funds:
Every state agency has been asked to operate on less because our revenues are down, yet the Department of Education has received a flat budget while others have taken cuts.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has already adjudicated the issue of ‘adequate school funding’ and dismissed a similar challenge in 2007. Not only that, but according to Department of Education funding data, the Oklahoma City Public School District’s per pupil funding average is more than $1,000 per student higher than the state average. However, if Oklahoma City Public Schools is concerned about a lack of funding, then I’m certainly curious to know how they found the money for millions of dollars in pay increases for their staff.
I would encourage them to spend their time and money on being better stewards of the dollars they receive instead of filing frivolous lawsuits that blame others for their own poor leadership. Not only would a lawsuit waste the school district’s money, it would waste additional taxpayer dollars to defend it. The Oklahoma City Public School District needs to stop playing political games and get back to educating students.”
The 2007 lawsuit McCall referenced is embedded below.
Mann noted that the Legislature is statutorily required to pass an education budget each year no later than April 1. The Legislature’s inability to meet that deadline in most years has spurred consternation from education groups. Mann said that might be another area for lawyers to examine in a potential suit.
In an unrelated lawsuit, the Oklahoma Public Charter Schools Association has sued the State Board of Education over funding as well.
(Editor’s note: OKCPS board member Mark Mann is the author’s insurance agent.)