School funding worries accompany legislative action

Thursday, May 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate on Thursday passed a $2 billion appropriation to fund public schools next year as school officials worried how they will pay the bills this year.

Because of a decline in tax collections, officials this week implemented cuts in allocations that will slash school funding by 16.8 percent in May and June, about 10 percent more than had been anticipated

Sandy Garrett, state schools superintendent, said there is no way some smaller school districts can absorb the cuts, which also affected state agencies.

``It's a very serious situation. No crying wolf here,'' Garrett said.

She said officials had identified about a half dozen school districts that will be out of money and may have to stop payments to vendors and take other drastic action.

Among them are the Weatherford, Okemah, Cement and Stratford school districts, she said.

``It could be a long list, I don't know,'' Garrett said.

The school funding measure, basically a standstill budget, was among several appropriations bills moving through the process as legislative leaders continued toward a May 24 adjournment.

``We're right on track,'' said Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore.

However, House Appropriations Chairman Mike Mass, D-Hartshorne, expressed frustration with a series of line-item vetoes _ totaling about $3.4 million _ by Gov. Frank Keating that knocked money out of agency revolving funds.

Mass said the vetoes are endangering a smooth adjournment and even suggested they could jeopardize a request by the Keating administration for additional money to complete construction of the Capitol dome.

He said he understood the dome request was up to $3 million.

``If they don't quit blindly vetoing money out of these revolving funds, then, no, he's not going to get money for their dome,'' Mass said.

John Cox, Keating's press secretary, said Keating vetoed the money because lawmakers did not specify where the money would be spent. He said Keating would ``strongly consider'' a separate bill detailing the reasons for the appropriations.

Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said only about a dozen budget bills are left in committee. He said he is confident agreements on spending Rainy Day money can be reached ``if everyone remains flexible.''

Hobson said the Keating veto binge ``doesn't help'' but he believed everything will fall in place if leaders can resolve issues like funding for the Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, two financially strapped agencies.

As far as dome funding, Hobson said he did not see a scenario where lawmakers would go home without taking action, forcing scaffolding to be taken down and officials to cancel dedication plans.

``I'm sure that everyone wants to fund the dome,'' he said.

The school funding bill for next year includes money to increase health care benefits of teachers and support personnel. The cost is about $35 million.

The measure, which maintains classroom funding at last year's level, now goes to the House for final consideration.

In other action Thursday, the Senate approved legislation to strengthen the financial status of the teacher retirement system.

The bill, by Sen. Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, would increase from 3.5 percent to 5 percent the amount the state dedicates to the teacher pension system.

``This will put the teachers retirement system on firmer financial footing,'' Morgan said. ``The stronger the system is, the better the benefits we can provide to our retired educators in the future.''

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill giving all retired teachers a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Educators with more than 30 years of service got a 4 percent increase.

Both retirement bills still must be considered by the House.