Education spending inefficiency: Outlining the challenge

 The “c” word for “Consolidation” remains one that provokes great passion at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. The word has been heard frequently this session when the topic is reducing the number of agencies or searching for efficiencies in Information Technology (IT) services.

When it comes to common education, the “c” word is not heard as often, but it has lurked in the background of education finance discussions for many years.

Governor Mary Fallin, in her State of the State address, alluded to high-end salary costs when she said: “Too much money is spent on administration and not enough money is spent on educating our students.

Rural legislators generally speak the loudest and the strongest when consolidation is the topic, but the “c” word can provoke arguments in the urban districts, as well.

Common education captures about one-third of the state budget, and when blended with Higher Education and CareerTech, the percentage of state taxpayer money spent on education is well over 50 percent of all Oklahoma state government spending.

Oklahoma has some 533 school systems educating about 640,000 children.  There are, roughly, 50,000 teachers in those systems, and 520 superintendents.

CapitolBeatOK has undertaken an examination of common education spending at the district level, poring over state government records and some district data.

Three issues stand out after spending quality time discerning the raw numbers and trying to place the financial information in some context.

The first is the number of separate school systems, even in some of Oklahoma’s smallest communities. Oklahoma towns and cities generally have their own schools and often their own districts, even if other systems are only 10 or 15 minutes away.

Second – keeping in mind the first issue  — a startling number of small towns have multiple school districts. This may not be a surprise to education policy wonks, but it certainly captured the attention of two journalists who had not, previously, dug into this sort of education data.

Third, and perhaps most surprising, rural school systems enjoy low student/teacher ratios, usually around 1:11. Statewide, the average is reported as 1:16. But the state standard is 1:20.

Clusters of separate school districts within towns and small cities come at cost to taxpayers, largely due to administrative costs, but in many cases also due to a higher-than-normal number of teachers. Redundancies obviously drive costs.

Considering Stilwell

Stilwell has the most school systems within a single town, although its population is less than 4,000. Stillwell has seven school systems. Seven superintendents. Seven administrative staffs. Seven sets of district supplies. Seven state financing allocations. Seven federal aid allocations. At least seven cafeterias.

Stilwell’s six dependent districts (those without high schools) are Dahlonegah, Zion, Peavine, Cave Springs, Rocky Mountain, and Maryetta (Not to be confused with Marietta). Here’s the aggregated data for those six dependent districts:

* Students: 1,487
* Teachers: 116
* Number of teachers beyond the 1:16 state average: 24
* Cost for teachers above the state average: just over $1 million
* (Administrative only) overhead: $15 million
* Cost of the six superintendents in dependent districts: $511,000
* Per pupil cost: about $2,000 per pupil above state average.

The seventh district in Stilwell is, of course, Stilwell. It is an independent K-12 district with a high school. Here’s the data:

* Students: 1,358
* Teachers: 115
* Estimated number of teachers beyond the state average: 25
* Extra cost for the 25 teachers above the state average: $1.1 million
* Administrative overhead: $11.4 million

In summary, across the seven districts, taxpayers are shelling out $26 million in overhead, plus more than $2 million for the teacher numbers beyond the norm.

Fourkiller speaks

State Rep. Will Fourkiller, a first-term legislator who represents Stilwell at the Capitol in Oklahoma City, has made it clear he will fight for every school system in his district.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK last month, Rep. Fourkiller said, “I have eleven dependent schools and seven independent schools in my district. Small schools are family-oriented and the foundation of the communities I represent. That is why I am so strongly opposed to small-school consolidation. It not only closes schools, but eliminates a community’s entire identity.”

He continued, “Since nearly one-third of the state’s budget – about $2.38 billion – goes through the Department of Education, I believe we should have greater checks and balances in place.”

Le Flore County’s Data and school systems profile

A bit south of Stilwell is Le Flore County, which has too many school districts for its population, in the view of state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

Le Flore County clocks in with 17 school districts, some as close as 10 or 20 minutes apart. Some are much further apart, and geographical spread could certainly be a contributing factor.

Schools in the county include: Cameron, Le Flore, Panama, Pocola, Bokoshe, Poteau, Wister, Shady Point, Talahina, Monroe, Whitesboro, Arkoma, Heavener, Spiro, Hodgen, Pocola and Fanshawe.

* Combined Teachers: 832
* Students: 9,588
* Number of teachers beyond the 1:16 average: 233
* Pay and benefits for teachers beyond the 1:16 average: $10.4 million
* Administrative overhead: $82.6 million+
* Pay for the 17 superintendents: $1.38 million

The prospect of cuts/and or school consolidation is guaranteed to be incendiary at the state Capitol, among lawmakers, education stakeholders and even many cost-conscious taxpayers.

There are various obstacles to consolidation, says Rep. Jeff Hickman, a Fairview Republican who is Pro Tem in the House of Representatives.

“One of the things that has hindered consolidation is the Oklahoma Education Association,” he said. The other obstacle he believes is superintendents, “Getting their bluff in” with local school boards so that the superintendents, not the boards, run the districts.

Hickman’s House Bill 2115 would provide an incentive for school districts to share superintendents. On Feb. 15 it unanimously passed from a budget subcommittee on education. Then, it cleared the Appropriations and Budget Committee 15-0. It is now pending on the House floor, where — if it is to remain alive — it must be passed and sent to the Senate within the next two weeks.

Hickman told CapitolBeatOK he knows even an incentives proposal like H.B. 2115 would be just the beginning of a gargantuan task of achieving education efficiencies.

“It’s like trying to turn the Titanic around out there,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to find efficiencies so schools will have the incentive to do this.” His bill proposes an approach that would consolidate superintendents.

The consolidated superintendent’s salary would be paid over three years from the state’s “school consolidation fund.” Hickman said he believes consolidations should be based on performance.

Speaking of the existing school consolidation fund, it presently has about $872,000 in it, but it has rarely been utilized by schools, he told CapitolBeatOK.

Other items Hickman believes need addressing include incentive pay and developing a reasonable way of firing ineffective teachers.

A check of state records shows that Oklahoma’s 520 superintendents cost taxpayers $56 million.

Stilwell can scarcely be singled out; the practice of multi-school system towns is by no means an anomaly.

It didn’t start with Stilwell

Here is a snapshot of some Oklahoma communities and towns which take after the Stilwell (Adair County) model of public school governance:

*Stilwell: Seven (Zion, Peavine, Cave Springs, Stilwell, Rocky Mountain, Maryetta, Dahlonegah)
*Shawnee: Six (Bethel, Shawnee, North Rock Creek, Grove, Pleasant Grove, South Rock Creek)
*Tahlequah: Five (Briggs, Tahlequah, Grandview, Woodall and Lowrey).
*Ponca City: Five (Ponca City, Keota, Wetumka, Dustin, Moss)
*Ardmore: Four (Dickson, Plainview, Ardmore, Zaneis)
* Atoka: Four (Atoka, Harmony, Faris, Tushka)
* Ada: Three (Vanoss, Latta, Bing, Ada)
* Claremore: Four (Verdigris, Sequoyah, Claremore, Justus-Tiawah)
* Lawton: Three (Tupelo, Bishop, Lawton)
* Marlow: Three (Central, Marlow, Bray-Doyle)
* McAlester: Three (Frink-Chambers, Tannehill and McAlester)
* Blanchard: Three (Blanchard, Middleberg, Bridgecreek)
* Broken Bow: Three (Lukfata, Broken Bow, Holley Creek)
* Sallisaw: Three (Brushy, Sallisaw, Central)
* Seminole: Three (Struther, Seminole, Varnum)
* Wewoka: Three (Justice, New Lima, Wewoka )
* Sapulpa: Three (Sapulpa, Pretty Water and Lone Star)
* Broken Bow: Three (Lukfata, Broken Bow, Holly Creek)
* Duncan: Three (Duncan, Woodrow, Empire)
* Elk City: Three (Elk City, Merritt, Banner)
* Pauls Valley: Two (Pauls Valley, Whitebread)
* Colcord: Two: (Moseley, Colcord)
* Durant: Two (Durant, Silo)
* Hulbert: Two (Hulbert, Norwood)
* Bunch: Two (Cave Springs, Greasy)
* Watts: Two (Skelly, Watts) Note: Distance from Bunch: 4 miles
* Chickasha: Two (Chickasha and Friend)
* Muskogee: Two (Muskogee, Hilldale)
* Weleetka: Two (Weleetka, Graham)
* Coalgate: Two (Cottonwood, Coalgate)
* Lawton: Two (Lawton, Flower Mound)
* Eufaula: Two (Stidham, Eufaula)
* Altus: Two (Altus, Navajo)
* South Coffeyville: (Union, South Coffeyville)
* Cushing: (Oak Grove, Cushing)
* Enid: Two (Chisholm, Enid)
* Waukomis: Two (Waukomis, Pioneer Pleasant Vale)
* Holdenville: Two (Holdenville, Moss)
* Marietta: Two (Greenville, Marietta)
* Pryor: Two (Osage, Pryor)
* Okema: Two (Bearden, Okema)
* Bartlesville: Two (Osage, Bartlesville)
* Okmulgee: Two (Twin Hills, Okmulgee)
* Cushing: Two (Oak Grove, Cushing)
* Pryor: Two (Pryor, Osage)
* Comanche: Two (Comanche, Grandview)

This sample might be incomplete, but this totaling alone finds 45 towns with 121 school districts. The overhead in the “extra” districts could, in reasonable assumptions, total from one half million to $3 million apiece, depending on size. And, of course, all of the overhead could not be consolidated.

In addition to the foregoing, there are across Oklahoma examples across the state’s scattered school systems of districts only minutes apart, but not necessarily in the same towns.

In more densely populated urban areas, there are other practices which have emerged that might, if looked at without preconceptions, be studied for efficiency, or lack thereof.

In the end, it will be up to elected and appointed decision-makers whether to continue these practices. Some may say they are examples of inefficiency. Others, in light of continued tight state government revenues, might call them luxuries.

Seeking “a better way”

In her State of the State address, Governor Mary Fallin spoke in broad terms about the need to seek more modern approaches, and to bring fiscal discipline to all of government. She said:

“Our state is now confronting yet another challenging budget year. But with that challenge comes the opportunity to seriously examine how we conduct the people’s business. It is time to ask the probing questions, the ‘why’ questions – why have we done it like this for years and why can’t we consider a different approach – a new approach – a modern approach. And, yes, we must be courageous and willing to move forward each time we find a better way, a better solution for the benefit of the people of Oklahoma. We will undertake new methods and we will constantly strive to improve what we do and how we do it. And let there be no misunderstanding – we will act, because the status quo is unacceptable.”

Whatever else emerges from this legislative session and whatever the direction education policy takes in the next few years, one thing is certain: all Oklahoma taxpayers have an enormous stake in the outcome.

Methodology: For purposes of this “snapshot” of education system practices, CapitolbeatOK used 1:16 as an average student teacher ratio across all grades.

State standards call for a student-teacher ratio of 20-1 in kindergarten through sixth grade, and no more than 140 students per teacher in secondary grades where teachers have several classes a day. Many small and medium-sized towns enjoy student teacher ratios hovering in the range of 1:10, well below the 1:16 state average and even farther outside the norm or average of state standards.

In a few districts, the ratios are as low as 1:3 or 1:4 or 1:5.

CapitolBeatOK used the most recent statistics available. In a few cases, the most recent number were from 2009. Most data, however, is from 2010.  CapitolBeatOK used $44,730 as the average teacher compensation package. That is an average of certified and non-certified instructors’ pay and benefits.

Note: Stacy Martin is a staff writer for CapitolBeatOK. McGuigan is the editor.