Tulsa school officials question Barresi's comments on teacher raises

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Reported by: Sharon Phillips
Updated: 8/26/2013 7:51 pm Published: 8/26/2013 4:41 pm

During a candidate's forum in Oklahoma City over the weekend, State Superintendent Janet Barresi proposed that schools give teachers a $2,000 raise.

While this sounds like a good idea, many school districts say she doesn't have an understanding of school finance.

Barresi met with school leaders over the weekend and they say basically insinuated in her speech that districts, like Tulsa Public Schools, are cheating teachers out of money.

The TPS superintendent, Dr. Keith Ballard, said that's not the case.

FOX23's Sharon Phillips sat down with him to get his thoughts on the state superintendent's proposal.

"I think what the state superintendent needs to do is take a lesson in school finance and understand why we have carryover," said Ballard.

Schools, including TPS, have to carry over funds to manage risk and to help manage the next year.

By law, TPS can carry over 14 percent, but it only carries over a little more than 6 percent.

"If I gave a $2,000 pay raise, which is exactly what she suggested, to every teacher in Tulsa Public Schools, it would cost well over $6.5 million."

Ballard says Barresi is using teachers as pawns.

"It is completely unworkable and it's a political statement and it's not grounded in reality and in fact," he said.

FOX23 found other school leaders feel the same way.

A blog post by a Jenks Middle School principal reads in part: "despite what she says, that money is simply not there, unless school boards chose to be fiscally reckless."

FOX23 does want to mention that this blog is the opinion of a Jenks educator and not that of the whole district.

Barresi's spokesman sent us this statement:

"We're asking schools to take 10 percent of their carryover and combine it with a 2 percent re-prioritization of their overhead so we can give teachers this raise. Two percent. There isn't a single government entity or private corporation on the planet that can't find 2 percent more efficiency in their administration."

Last week, TPS approved giving teachers a one-time stipend and that ended up costing the district $2.5 million. Despite the hit in finances, Ballard says it's well deserved.

Ballard also sent a written response about Barresi’s comments:

“No one supports increased teacher pay more than I do. In fact, teachers at Tulsa Public Schools received a modest step increase on the first day of school, and we are in the process of finalizing negotiations regarding pay with the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. 

Since 2008, we have worked diligently to cut expenses at the district when we lost $22.8 million in funding. That work has already been done. My financial priorities now are teacher pay and increasing the number of teaching positions. I would also argue that there is room for a pay increase among our principal ranks.

“With regard to the suggestion that we pay for a $2,000-per-year pay increase for teachers with the district’s carryover funds, that would not be a fiscally responsible position. Carryover funds are reserve funds that are used primarily to manage cash flow from fiscal year to fiscal year. By law, districts are allowed 14 percent carryover. TPS’s ending fund balance for 2012-13 is $20.7 million, or 6.8 percent of revenue, which is well below what state law allows.

“The estimated cost for a $2,000 increase to teachers (including benefits) would be $6.6 million. Because we were extremely conservative in our spending last year, we have already taken some of the carryover funds and spent an additional $2 million on reading materials to help improve literacy. In addition, we spent $2.5 million on one-time payments to staff (a 2013-14 expense).

“To suggest that carryover funds be used to cover teacher raises is a poor solution, especially given the decline in per-pupil funding we have experienced over the last five years. A cardinal rule of school finance is not to pay recurring expenses, specifically teacher salaries, from one-time funds, specifically carryover funds.

"We are always looking for ways to cut operating expenses and revisit this every year. Let me remind everyone that TPS lost over $22 million during the last budget crisis. We were aggressive in making budget cuts through initiatives like Project Schoolhouse -- an exercise we continue to perform on an annual basis -- and these cuts have already taken place through closed schools, administrative and teacher cuts, holds on the refilling of positions, etc.

"While Oklahoma teachers are deserving of a $2,000 pay increase, we will have to appeal to our state legislators to find a way to make this possible. We need a better long-term solution."

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