State questions deal with education issues

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ A group led by a college professor is taking aim at a state question on extending contracts for university presidents.

State Question 686 is one of three education-related questions on the Nov. 7 ballot, which includes six questions altogether. But SQ 686 appears to be the only one to face organized opposition. Advocates of other questions have said they fear spillover from the campaign against 686 will doom their causes.

SQ 686 would amend the state constitution to allow colleges and universities to make contracts with presidents up to three years. Contracts are now done annually.

Tom Guild, a business law professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and head of a group called NIX 686, said the proposal discriminates against professors, other administrators and staff members who cannot receive multiyear contracts.

``To amend the constitution to help 27 people is a strange way to conduct public policy,'' Guild said.

He also said he fears that three-year contracts would be extended each year, giving college presidents a continual three-year deal.

Guild said that could saddle state taxpayers with millions in potential liabilities if dismissed university presidents can force schools to buy out the remainder of their contracts.

But Bill Cole, president of East Central University in Ada and chairman of the Council of Presidents, said longer term contracts would not increase taxpayer liability.

College presidents could still be dismissed with cause, he said. Cole said he remembers only one president's contract being terminated in the past 25 years.

Five public university presidents retired last year. Others are approaching retirement, giving the state added incentive to offer longer term contracts to bolster the pool of applicants, Cole said.

``To recruit highly qualified people from across the country to the applicant pool is a challenge,'' he said.

Two other education related questions are on the ballot.

State Question 684 would change how the state can use the permanent school fund, which is part of the School Land Trust passed onto Oklahoma by the federal government to help pay for public schools and universities.

The trust has a market value of about $1.2 billion in permanent funds consisting largely of investments in stocks and bonds. The amount does not include the value of land and minerals dedicated to the trust.

Earnings from 78 percent of the permanent fund are earmarked for public schools. Income from 22 percent of the fund value goes to public universities.

The land commission is limited to distributing only income. If passed, SQ 684 would allow the state to spend a portion of the actual value of the fund itself.

Contrary to appearance, the goal of the proposed change is to boost the value of the fund and make more money available to schools and universities instead of diminishing its value, said Stephen Coit, general counsel for the Oklahoma Land Commission.

Changes in investment strategy could help the state achieve its goal, he said.

Fund income now includes interest and dividends from investments. But capital gains from the sale of securities are put back into the fund, Coit said.

If adopted, SQ 684 would allow the state to put all interest, earnings and capital gains back in the trust fund in hopes of boosting the overall investment return, Coit said.

A portion of the investments is now kept in bonds with fixed interest and dividends to ensure ample yearly income, he said.

But with a change the state could invest in more high-growth stocks that often do not pay dividends but historically have higher returns than bonds, Coit said.

The Legislature has already passed a law limiting public schools and universities to 5 percent of their respective portions of the fund if SQ 684 passes, he said.

State Question 690 would allow voters in each school district to decide whether to make mill levies for support, building and emergency needs permanent or to continue voting on them annually.

Six years ago, state voters defeated a similar proposal.

This time, SQ 690 has the support of the Oklahoma Education Association and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Norman Cooper, a lobbyist for the OEA, said having less frequent elections could save money.

Currently, the levies include 10 mills for support, 5 mills for building and a 5-mill levy for emergency needs. The mills constitute about half the local support mills for school districts, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.

State Rep. Barbara Staggs, D-Muskogee, is among SQ 690 supporters. Staggs has indicated that passage would allow local districts to save money by avoiding elections when there's no school board race.

The local mill elections are not for tax increases anyway, she said, and millages must be passed or districts lose state aid.