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Teachers face larger classes because of pending budget cuts

Updated:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma teachers face the possibility of larger classes next year because of the statewide budget crunch, officials say.

Lawmakers have said they plan to spare education as much as possible, but continuing revenue shortfalls are making that harder to accomplish.

Several superintendents said they don't want to lay off teachers next school year but may avoid filling open positions, which would force larger class sizes.

Wayne Superintendent David Powell said the rural McClain County school district already has a hiring freeze. The school board may have to consider layoffs if no teacher's leave before next year, Powell said.

The revenue shortfall was originally estimated at $70.5 million, but last month financial officials increased their estimate to $95.5 million.

The shortfall occurred because tax collections to the state are producing less money than originally estimated. The gross production tax on natural gas has dropped sharply, creating the biggest problem. It will finish the year $260.5 million below estimates, officials said.

Some districts already have smaller classes than the law mandates or have surpassed 85 percent of their bonded indebtedness capacity, which exempts them from cuts.

Some districts _ including Oklahoma City and Union in Tulsa _ are preparing to order spending freezes at schools.

``We have already told all of our staff that we will stop spending April 15,'' said Debra Jacoby, Unions chief financial officer. ``After April 15, we will look at those spending requests on a case-by-case basis. Hopefully, that will allow us to best manage the funds we have this year.''

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett said state finance officials want the agency to make a 1.55 percent cut for the rest of this school year. But employee benefits and the $3,000 raise awarded to teachers a few years ago will be exempt from cuts, Garrett said.

Any cuts mean schools will see a cut in their monthly state aid payments.

``We met with every superintendent in the state during January,'' Garrett said. ``In those meetings, we discussed trying to look outside the classroom for cuts, but of course, now the situation is worse than it was before.''

The state faces even more budget problems next fiscal year. Estimates show lawmakers will have $350 million less to appropriate than they did for this fiscal year.

Jacoby said she is more concerned about that. The district continues to gain about 200 students annually; a cut in state funding would make it difficult for the district to offer all the same services.

Also, school districts have begun budget planning and must notify teachers in April whether their contracts will be renewed.

``We need to make some decisions about what kind of courses are going to be offered, what kind of positions to replace and fill,'' Jacoby said. ``We're still obviously dealing with teachers who can receive better teaching positions if they move out of state.

``We want to create a good teaching environment here where teacher's don't have to worry about whether there will be money to pay them.''
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