State Senate passes bill offering incentives for school consolidation

Monday, April 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma school districts would receive financial rewards for consolidating with each other under legislation passed Monday by the state Senate.

The idea behind the bill is to reduce the cost of Oklahoma's public education system, which has suffered through cutbacks caused by falling state revenue. The state has more than 540 school districts.

Sen. Charles Ford's bill now goes to the state House, which has passed it once, but must reconsider it because the Senate has made amendments to the original legislation.

Ford, R-Tulsa, stressed that consolidation is ``strictly voluntary.''

``For districts that may be looking at it, this adds incentives that may offer a reason to get the job done,'' Ford said.

Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, said he prefers to think of consolidation as ``streamlining,'' saying the bill ``isn't about closing down schoolhouses.''

Meanwhile, Sen. Herbert Rozell, D-Tahlequah, argued the bill scares small schools and that he doesn't think it will save money.

``Bigger schools are not always better,'' Rozell said. ``In due time it's going to get your small schools.''

The measure would provide several incentives for schools to voluntarily consolidate using a fund administered by the state Board of Education.

The fund could be used to buy textbooks, hire new teachers, equip classrooms and provide severance pay and unemployment compensation to personnel who lose their jobs due to consolidation.

Other incentives include exempting consolidated or annexed districts from class size limitations for five years and allowing them to remain eligible for the small school district ranking in the state aid formula for 10 years.

Although the bill contains no money, Oklahoma's lottery plan sets aside 5 percent of net proceeds for a fund to encourage school consolidation.

A lottery proposal passed earlier this month asks voters whether they want a statewide lottery. No election date has been set.

The measure passed 30-17 and now goes back to the House for consideration.

In other business, the Senate put off considering a bill that calls for a vote of the people to decide whether to reduce the penalty for illegal cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor.

An amendment was adopted to make second and subsequent offenses felonies and allow for tougher penalties. The bill's author, Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, moved to table the bill. When the motion to table it failed, he asked that it be laid over.

The vote was scheduled for the 2004 primary.