Educators brace for budget cuts

Monday, April 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Hiring and travel freezes have been imposed at the state Department of Education as officials brace for budget cuts that could top 6 percent at the agency, Oklahoma's top educator said Monday.

State School Superintendent Sandy Garrett said the department has suggested trimming its administrative costs and other functions to prevent cuts in teacher salaries, health and retirement benefits for teachers and support personnel and instructional materials.

``We're in some desperate straights in the education arena,'' Garrett said after meeting with members of a House appropriations subcommittee. ``We're down to some essential services right now.''

The state is facing a projected $350 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and is searching for ways to trim state agency budgets while protecting education, public safety and health care services.

Garrett said the department has implemented a hiring freeze as well as a ban on travel and new purchases in an effort to save money.

Agency officials have proposed a 6.1 percent cut in its administrative costs as well as a 4.2 percent cut in other programs that do not directly involve classroom teachers and materials.

In spite of the cuts, the superintendent said officials do not anticipate laying off education employees.

The department is seeking $10 million in supplemental funds to help balance the education budget for this year, which has already been trimmed more than 2 percent because of the shortfall.

Garrett said she believes funds in the state's constitutional Rainy Day account should be used to help balance the budget.

``It is a Rainy Day in Oklahoma,'' she said.

Meanwhile, a House appropriations committee approved more than $2.5 million in cuts to 11 state agencies to help meet the projected $350 million shortfall.

The proposed cuts must still be approved by the House and Senate and signed by the governor before they go into effect.

The House's General Conference Committee on Appropriations approved a 5 percent cut to the budget of the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation after turning back a motion by Rep. Wayne Pettigrew, R-Edmond, to impose a 10 percent cut.

A 5 percent reduction would reduce the agency's budget by $116,819, from $2.3 million to $2.2 million.

Rep. Jack Begley, D-Goodwell, questioned Pettigrew about where the additional cuts would be made.

``Most of my friends on your side of the aisle want to do away with it,'' Pettigrew responded. The commission is responsible for developing and implementing a competency-based teacher preparation and candidate assessment system.

The committee also approved a 5 percent cut in the budget of the Oklahoma Educational Television authority, from $3.9 million to $3.7 million.

Rep. Hopper Smith, R-Tulsa, questioned whether the state should subsidize a television network that could be operated by private interests.

But OETA's supporters said it is the only source of commercial-free television in the state and the only source of information about Oklahoma government and news events to many rural residents.

``Those of us reaching our senior years, we still like to watch Lawrence Welk,'' joked former House Speaker Loyd Benson, D-Frederick.

``Who was Lawrence Welk?'' quipped Rep. Larry Rice, D-Tulsa.

``I dated Lawrence Welk's first wife,'' Begley said with a smile. ``She taught me how to polka.''