By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi called her colleagues back to Washington, D.C. during the recent summer recess to pass a $26 billion jobs bill, Republicans called the move a desperate ploy to gain public support and called the legislation another bailout.
The speaker, the president, and other leading Democrats insisted passage of the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act was critical -- it would mean, among other things, that many of the thousands of teachers that school districts had been forced to let go at the end of last school year due to shrinking budget allocations, would be rehired.
So, has that happened?
In Oklahoma, state lawmakers budgeted about $200 million less to common education for Fiscal Year 2011 than they had for FY 2010, representing a reduction of 7.6 percent. The result was predictable -- school districts cut an estimated 2,000 teaching jobs across the state.
In the Oklahoma City Public School District, 111 teaching positions were eliminated and class sizes approaching or exceeding 30 have not been uncommon this year. So with the district getting $7.1 million from the Education Jobs Act, it would seem fair to ask the superintendent if he planned to use it right now to hire some of those teachers back.
"Well, I don't think so," said Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer.
Springer said they did rehire a few teachers using carryover funds from last year to address the most egregious overcrowding situations. But he said his hope is to be able to save all of the Education Jobs Act money for next year, which could wind up being far more fiscally challenging than this year.
"This is the time for us to be really careful," Springer said. "Seven million dollars is a lot of money, but at the end of the day, we need to be ready to face school a year from now."
The act does give districts through September 2012 to spend their allocations, so Oklahoma City isn't violating the law by not spending it now. Other districts, however, don't feel they can wait.
Tahlequah School District officials said they were planning to hold on to their $656,000 allotment until next year, but the harsh reality of lost teaching and staff positions caused a change in strategy. The district is spending the money now and hoping economic conditions will improve by next year.
And they're not alone. In Edmond, Durant and Norman, officials told similar stories. Most districts are spending at least some of their money now.
Oklahoma's second largest school district, Tulsa Public Schools, is receiving the largest disbursement of Jobs Act funds, $7.6 million. Tulsa was also facing the largest cut in staff -- 195 teaching positions.
"Then the jobs bill came along, and that was huge for us. I mean, that was really a godsend for us," said Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard.
Ballard said he took $2 million of their funding and immediately refilled 40 of those 195 spots. The district still has class sizes that are larger than Ballard would like, but he said the problem is now manageable. The district still has more than $5 million of the federal money to cope with whatever the next big challenge is that comes along.
"We were able to fill some of the most pressing needs, plus save some of the money toward next year," Ballard said.
But Not everyone is happy with the way this money is being used.
"There's nothing in the Constitution that gives the authority to the federal government to pay teacher pay in Oklahoma," said U.S. Senator Tom Coburn.
Coburn voted against the Jobs Act, saying he opposes using federal money to help bail out state and local governments.
"Look, the whole point is the federal government shouldn't be involved in the education of our kids in Oklahoma," Coburn said.
But Superintendent Ballard disagreed. He said he thinks this is a good and appropriate use of federal dollars.
"I absolutely do, not only because it's in the best interest of American school children, but I think it does impact the economy," Ballard said.