Published Online: December 21, 2009

Okla. Schools Struggle With Budgets Amid New Cuts

Oklahoma school districts are struggling to absorb a 10 percent cut in state revenue and still meet payroll expenses and pay for services for which they have signed contracts.

The state announced the revenue cut last week, which follows an earlier 5 percent cut. State revenue collections are down more than 25 percent from a year ago.

Some school districts have reserve funds they can tap, but others may have to lay off workers.

More than two dozen Oklahoma school districts have told the state that they can't balance their budgets, and at least four districts have shifted to four-day weeks to shave costs.

"We have many school districts that are already looking at not being able to pay out the year," Assistant State Education Superintendent James White said.

As of Wednesday, the Oklahoma Department of Education said it was told by 25 districts that they would not be able to cover payroll or debts because of the 10 percent revenue cut.

"We are deeply concerned. It is very difficult to address budget cuts during the year, so we are fighting the budget battle on two fronts," Tulsa schools Superintendent Keith Ballard said.

"When you have contractual obligations and 85 percent of your budget is personnel, you don't have very far you can go."

Some schools are talking about furloughs for support staff and administrators, four-day school weeks, and even closing down next school year and joining bigger, more financially sound districts, White said.

Central High School District in Stephens County is among districts that are moving to a four-day school week. The district has a $165,000 shortfall.

Central Superintendent Bennie Newton said the district can save as much as $30,000 in savings on utilities, bus routes and some staffing.

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett said during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday that she knows of three other districts that have shifted to a four-day school week: Prue, Barnsdall and Gore.

Larger districts, such as Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, likely will look to their emergency funds to make it through the end of this fiscal year.

Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer has said any cuts coming after the holidays will not affect students or force layoffs.

However, the district has had a $2.3 million shortfall for the last four months.

Ballard said the Tulsa district has frozen hiring, offered employees early retirement packages and closed its administrative offices three days sooner than originally planned.

Starting in July, Ballard said, as many as 100 positions may be eliminated.

Districts also have added health insurance costs. The state isn't covering an increase in the price districts pay. The increase starts in January and is estimated at $21.8 million.

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