The Oklahoma state board of education, at the prompting of Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, on (Thursday, June 23) approved an activities fund budget of more than $401 million.
The action came soon after Gov. Mary Fallin’s newest appointee, Lee Baxter of Lawton, joined the board of education and helped secure a majority for Barresi’s priorities.
At least one observer at the meeting, Peter J. Rudy of OklahomaWatchdog.org, has detailed concerns about the process that led to the final vote.
The activities fund constitutes a meaningful portion of the overall $2.27 billion appropriated budget for state public schools in the coming fiscal year, including $1.89 billion that moves automatically through the state aid funding formula. A bit less than $22 million funds the state Department itself, including $12 million for testing.
In a release sent to CapitolBeatOK, the superintendent said core learning was a priority, along with funding for teacher retirement and health benefits, more than $330 million of the total flowing from the activities fund.
Saying that after three years of budget discipline tight budgets are “a new normal,” Barresi had asked the Board of Education to back her intention to assure “that teachers’ retirement and health benefits are fully funded so school administrators have stability and so they can plan ahead.” Barresi identified reading instruction, support for course rigor and meeting graduation requirements as other priority areas.
Barresi’s priorities today (Friday, June 24) drew the praise of Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEO). The group applauded the $10 million that will go to early childhood education initiatives, and $14.8 million for early intervention.
Pat Potts, OKCEO’s co-founder, characterized early childhood schooling as “a vital part of building a skilled workforce and giving young people the tools they need to succeed in academics and later in life.”
Debra Anderson of Smart Start Oklahoma said early education is particularly urgent in tight fiscal times. She contended, “From prenatal visits with new parents through Pre-K programs, Oklahoma has a strong early childhood system that supports families with young children. Our goal for the coming year will be to increase awareness of and access to these services to ensure children enter school with the skills they need to be a successful reader by third grade.”
State Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond, a close Barresi ally, backed the decision to give reading programs a boost of $6 million in the latest school board actions.
In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, the Republican legislator said, “Our recent reforms to end social promotion for students who can’t read after the third grade can only succeed with the appropriate level of support.
“I appreciate the hard work that Superintendent Barresi did in making sure that reading sufficiency funding was addressed in this tight fiscal climate.”
Other reactions to the actions of Barresi and the board included cheers from several rural Republican legislators.
State Rep. Don Armes of Faxon, a former agriculture educator, said, “Agriculture remains a cornerstone of Oklahoma’s economy and it is important that our school system continues to develop the farmers and ranchers of tomorrow. I know firsthand the value of Agriculture in the Classroom and I appreciate the board’s support of this important program.”
Barresi has said previously that “Ag Ed” programs help introduce high-level math and science content, as well as language arts, into curriculum.
Dale DeWitt of Braman, a former “Ag Ed” instructor, commented, “Having spent much of my life in agriculture education, I know how important it is to provide children the tools necessary for future success in the industry.
“Rather than some relic of the past, Agriculture in the Classroom provides all students with knowledge of agriculture and the importance it has in our state. I am pleased the board voted to fund it today.”
State Sen. Ron Justice of Chickasha, a retired county extension agent for Oklahoma State University, reflected his belief that, “Even in the 21st century, agriculture remains one of the three main economic drivers of the Oklahoma economy.”
“While agriculture education serves a clear need in rural communities, it is also important that children in urban areas have access to it,” commented Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Schulz of Altus, a farmer and former field representative for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.
Skye McNiel of Bristow, who operates a livestock auction, said Ag Ed “translates abstract concepts into real-world applications.” Phil Richardson of Minco, a veterinarian, asserted, “To master the challenges of marketplace fluctuations, constantly evolving technologies and new developments in crop production and livestock breeding, tomorrow’s farmers and ranchers must have a solid foundation in math, science and communication.”
Chairmen of the legislative budget and appropriations committees also applauded the education board and Barresi for “maximizing” funding in a tough environment.
House Chairman Earl Sears of Bartlesville said the budget approved Thursday “strikes the right balance by funding those programs that provide the most direct benefit to students.”
His Senate peer, David Myers of Ponca City referred to the “‘new normal’ of budget austerity,” saying the end product prioritizes “student learning over bureaucracy” and fulfills legal requirements.
In other news touching Thursday’s proceedings, Peter J. Rudy of Oklahoma Watchdog.org is reporting concern that one agenda item at the board meeting was insufficiently detailed to meet requirements of the state Open Meetings Act.
He wrote, “The budget contains the elimination of several programs including the Charter Schools Incentive Fund, National Board Certified scholarships and bonuses and middle school math laboratories. Some board members complained during the meeting that they only received the budget details the evening before the meeting and they wanted more time to look over the numbers.
“The budget details were not posted online and the press did not receive copies until just before the meeting started. It could be argued that … stakeholders (like National Board Certified teachers) had no idea looking at the agenda that their programs were being eliminated.”
Rudy’s full report on the Board of Education meeting, and a video exchange with Superintendent Barresi, can be found at www.Oklahomawatchdog.org