(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)
With its attorney raising challenges, the state Board of Education failed to comply with a Sept. 1 deadline in Gov. Mary Fallin’s order to identify for possible consolidation school districts that spend less than 60 percent of their funds on instruction.
In a six-page memo dated Aug. 30, attorney Brad Clark said that Fallin’s Nov. 21, 2017, order doesn’t clearly define “instructional expenditure,” and the governor’s staff has so far been unwilling to clarify or modify the order. He also said Fallin lacks the authority to issue such an order.
The memo is addressed to members of the state board of education and Joy Hofmeister, superintendent of public instruction and board chair, and was also sent to Fallin and her chief of staff, Chris Benge.
Fallin has yet to respond to Clark’s letter and is reviewing it, Michael McNutt, a spokesman for Fallin, said Friday.
The executive order directed the board to compile by Sept. 1, and every year after, a list of every public school district that spends less than 60 percent of its budget on instructional expenditures, and to consider and recommend annexation or consolidation based on the list.
The order came months before the Legislature approved a $430 million hike in taxes to pay for teacher pay raises, after which education leaders said more overall funding for schools is still needed. Some lawmakers and advocacy groups opposed the tax hike and said the state should first cut any administrative waste in school districts.
According to the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, at least four out of five districts and charter schools spent less than 60 percent of their total funding on instruction in 2016-17. Instructional expenditures include teacher salaries and benefits, textbooks and smartboards.
Education data show, however, that, percentages of classroom spending often aren’t what they appear to be because of the complexity of school financing, as Oklahoma Watch reported in a July 9 story. Money not spent on the classroom doesn’t necessarily go to administration, as it also pays for expenditures such as counselors, school meal programs and transportation.
In his memo, Clark said the governor’s order is confusing because in one part it appears to rely on a federal definition of instructional expenses, then later lists “its own rendition of services that are considered to be administrative,” including superintendent functions, textbooks and nutrition programs. That definition contradicts one the Legislature already approved.
Clark wrote that there is widespread agreement about the need to spend taxpayers’ money efficiently.
“The intent of the Executive Order and its end goal to achieve the most effective and efficient expenditure of Oklahoma taxpayer dollars is commendable and widely supported,” Clark wrote. However, he said the order as written could actually thwart those goals or result in a lawsuit against the board or superintendent.
In addition, Clark wrote, the order was issued before the state-mandated teacher pay raise, which just went into effect and will increase districts’ classroom spending. To create a list of districts now “would already be out of date and completely misleading,” he wrote.
He also argues that the governor overstepped her authority in issuing the order. Administrative consolidation and annexation is the purview of the Legislature, and lawmakers have considered at least 20 bills in the past three years related to school consolidation or annexation, he wrote.
His memo noted that “… for reasons unknown, in reaching this far sweeping conclusion, the governor’s office has elected not to consider other factors such as academic outcomes, analyzing other states’ experiences or retaining experts to assist in making recommendations relating to school consolidation.”
It’s unclear whether the issue will be resolved soon or would end up falling to a new administration. Fallin’s term ends in just over four months, when a new governor will be inaugurated. Hofmeister is running for re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot.