Ryan Walters budget
Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters speaks to lawmakers on the House of Representatives floor before presenting a proposed Oklahoma State Department of Education budget on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Two days before his first Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presented a budget request this morning to a House of Representatives subcommittee, but he told lawmakers that he plans on changing the numbers shortly. In September, the state board approved a budget proposal — which includes a requested $5,000 pay raise for teachers — under Walters’ predecessor, Joy Hofmeister, but he said it is “very different” from an amended budget request he hopes a largely new group of board members will approve Thursday.

However, Walters’ intention to overhaul the OSDE budget request seemed to cause confusion at Tuesday’s hearing of the House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee, with Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride (R-Moore) initially saying he had been told by staff that Walters was required to present the budget request previously approved by the state board. (McBride and House staff later clarified that there was no constitutional requirement to that effect.)

“I will be back next week and present our budget for the next (…) year for your consideration,” Walters said as he began his presentation. “But in line with statutory requirements, we wanted to present to you all the budget that was approved by the State Board of Education under Superintendent Hofmeister.”

McBride interrupted Walters.

“Are you saying the budget will totally change — you’re presenting a budget that’s not going to be the same budget, and you’re going to totally change it?” McBride asked.

Walter replied: “Representative, yes sir, it will be very different when we come next week to present back to this body.”

McBride seemed confused and paused for a moment.

“I don’t know what the point of hearing Joy’s budget would be if the state board is going to change it,” McBride said.

As Walters continued to present the budget request, he extensively discussed his plan for literacy education for elementary students. McBride interrupted him again, asking him to stay on topic presenting monetary figures rather than discussing policy and slipping into “campaign rhetoric.”

“With all due respect, I need the performance review for last year. That’s what you’re here to present,” McBride said.

After that interruption, Walters stopped his presentation.

“OK, I’ve laid out the budget request for (Fiscal Year) 2024. I have laid out the appropriation for 2023. And this is where we are for the moment, so I welcome any questions,” Walters said.

He said he hopes to present what will amount to a new budget proposal Jan. 31.

‘We kept deviating’

Tuesday’s awkward hearing seemed to give fodder for Walters’ detractors, who have criticized him for continuing to use rhetoric he deployed on the campaign trail, even after winning election.

Calling the presentation “a real S-show” in a post on Instagram, Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC), who does not sit on the A&B Education Subcommittee but attended the meeting, lamented the fact that Walters plans on changing a budget that seeks significantly higher funding for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“I think that what he did today was to sort of reiterate the concerns of many of his critics, which is that he’s more interested in politics than he is in policy,” Bennett told NonDoc after the hearing.

McBride also expressed concern that the hearing did not focus on the agency’s budget.

“I had legal staff tell me that he should present whatever was in the old budget,” McBride said. “But it seemed as we went along, there wasn’t enough of that, and we kept deviating and going into policy or ideals or campaign rhetoric.”

The budget request approved by the State Board of Education in September proposed an across-the-board $5,000 teacher pay raise and a total agency funding increase of more than $390 million. Walters said he plans on proposing a new budget for the state board to approve at its Thursday meeting and then returning to present that budget to the House subcommittee on Tuesday, Jan. 31.

It is unclear exactly how Walters’ proposed budget will differ from the one state board members approved in September. Only two board members who approved the original budget request will hear the new proposal, as Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed four new members to the board Jan. 10.

Walters did say he wants teacher pay raises to be tied to their performance and that he wants more transparency in the State Department of Education. To that end, Walters said, he instituted a hiring freeze and a spending freeze when he took office so that all related decisions require his approval.

“And the pay that goes to teachers — it’s got to be based on performance. We have to do things differently to get better outcomes for our kids,” Walters told reporters after the hearing. “For us to move the needle for kids, this has to be a performance-based pay increase for teachers.”

McBride, however, said he hopes to see more than just a performance-based raise for teachers in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which legislators will negotiate and approve between February and May.

“I think the base pay needs to be raised,” McBride said after the hearing. “But I also think, like in any business out there, there should be a performance-based pay. There needs to be a cost-of-living increase.”

Other subcommittee members also expressed concern about the education budget proposal.

Prompting another interruption from McBride about the germaneness of the day’s discussion, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck (R-Elgin) said district superintendents had expressed concern for “the next four years” because of Walters’ campaign comments. Hasenbeck  asked for assurance that their districts will not lose money because of Walters’ policies.

In his reply, Walters offered no assurances to superintendents.

“My concerns are parents, teachers and kids,” Walters said. “My plan is to ensure that parents have more options, that teachers have the support necessary to be successful in the classroom, that we have a focus on academics and not indoctrination.”

(Correction: This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, to remove an incorrect reference to requirements related to budget presentations. NonDoc regrets the error.)