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School consolidation

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ You won't hear it from the lips of politicians, but the ``C'' word is popping up in discussions about how to solve the state school budget crisis.

School consolidation has long been considered a political no-no in Oklahoma, which has more than 540 school districts in 77 counties.

But members of a task force formed by state School Superintendent Sandy Garrett confirm that structural changes in the state school system are under review.

``On Sandy's task force, were looking at all kind of ideas, including consolidation of administrative services,'' says Carolyn Crowder, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

In addition to possible ``structural changes,'' cost-savings opportunities such as centralized purchasing are also being considered, Crowder said.

Keith Ballard, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards' Association, said the task force should provide legislators with better information.

``Finally, somebody is coming up with some specific data and will say: Now you have a choice (on school consolidation); this is what the cost savings will be.''

State Rep. Odilia Dank, R-Oklahoma City, is proposing to save money by merging administrative functions of school districts.

She cites Office of Accountability records showing there are 430 independent school district superintendents with salaries totaling $32.8 million and the salaries of 103 assistant superintendents total $7.7 million.

Dank's bill would require school districts with average daily membership of fewer than 500 students and a transportation area of less than 100 square miles to ``combine the services of a superintendent'' with one or more adjacent school districts.

It would combine administrative duties of any elementary school district that has an average daily membership of fewer than 200 students and a transportation area smaller than 75 miles.

Crowder and Ballard say efficiencies won't solve the schools' budget woes, while Dank says ``any money saved is worth the effort.''

Outgoing Gov. Frank Keating campaigned for consolidation of school administration costs for years, as did Republican Steve Largent in his unsuccessful campaign for governor.

For Largent, it was a political liability as he repeatedly had to issue assurances that he wasn't talking about consolidating or closing schools.

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry got a warm welcome last week at a meeting of 1,100 educators, many of whom are pushing a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase to ease the budget dilemma.

While saying help could be on the way from a state lottery later in his administration, Henry had little to say about how he would address the current crisis.

He hinted cost savings would be part of the solution, however, urging educators to ``think smarter'' and look for efficiencies.

Henry also reiterated his opposition to a sales tax increase, which will be supported by many attending a pro-education rally at the Capitol on Feb. 12, nine days after the Legislature reconvenes.

The governor and others have said it will be difficult to spare schools from more cuts because of the enormity of the budget shortfall and the fact that schools get the biggest chunk of the state revenues.

A December estimate gave lawmakers $600 million less to spend this year than they did in 2001. A final revenue certification will be made next month.

Republican legislative leaders last week proposed restoration of current school budget cuts and passage of an education budget that protects schools by a Feb. 12 deadline, the date of the rally.

Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson and House Speaker Larry Adair called the proposal unrealistic.

Hobson said it is irresponsible to spend more than half the budget without gauging the impact that additional cuts would have on such programs as children's health care and prisons.

One lawmaker suggested last week that teachers forget about the Capitol demonstration, but Crowder said that would be a mistake.

She said quick action to solve the problem is needed because teacher contracts are up in April.

If schools have to absorb another major cut, she says, thousands of teachers will face layoffs and reforms such as lower class sizes will die.

She said many educators will continue to press for a sales tax increase, ``but if they come up with a better solution, then that's what we'll be for.''

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