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A Short Note from Okeducationmom

August 24, 2016 Comments off

Those of you who know me well understand that there has been one person who has been there for me my whole life – my mom. She was a teacher, for 29 years, in Chickasha and Norman. I can’t think of anyone who has influenced me more. She’s probably the biggest reason I chose to be an educator. Tonight, she has authored a guest post that I hope you’ll enjoy.


 

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Mother’s Day 2012

Hi, Friends,

My name is Ellen Kanak.  I’d like to offer my two cents about public education.  I am a product of public common and higher education.  I am a mom and a grandmother of children who have been well-served by public education.  I am a retired teacher who is old enough to have seen education policy change in many ways.  I am closely following legislation, legislators, and policy decisions that have the potential to help or harm public education.   I am an unapologetic, fierce advocate for public education.  I know that other retired educators are as well.  The time is now to act to elect Oklahoma legislators who will advance legislation that supports all of our children, their parents, teachers, and staff.

I began teaching in the dark ages.  In 1971, there was no free and appropriate education for all.  Students with special needs and their families had to really scramble to find ways to have a quality education.  This was when I was first introduced to advocacy.  Later, I became a building representative for my school district’s teachers’ organization before I even knew what a building rep does.  I learned pretty quickly though, and in time I learned just how important that advocacy is.  I helped storm the Capitol in 1990 and the result was HB 1017.  This bill helped public education in really significant ways.  It was a bipartisan effort that helped better fund our schools and put in place appropriate policies that addressed class size and other issues that impact our students in positive ways.  I’ve also seen setbacks—many have occurred over the last ten years or so.  Some occurred soon after HB 1017 was enacted, because we didn’t stay focused on maintaining the progress and work to further advance education policy.  It was thrilling to see a new Superintendent of Public Instruction elected a couple of years ago, but again we quit paying attention and ended up with some legislators who are not friendly to our purpose.

The primaries are settled.  As we prepare for the November general election, candidates have been clearly identified as pro-public education—or not!  We have choices in both parties; we have independent candidates as well.  Individuals and groups have worked tirelessly to give us good choices.  Two of my favorite sources are Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education and Okeducationtruths.  For the purpose of full disclosure, I am Rick Cobb’s mother, so he is my “most favorite.”  Other favorite advocates are Claudia Swisher, Rob Miller, Dallas Koehn, and Angela Clark Little.  It is especially gratifying to me to see parents, students, teachers, support staff, school boards, superintendents, and many other community members working together for the common good.

Will you join me in a willingness to cross party lines to elect the best candidate for each legislative position?  Those of us who are retired have seen political parties evolve and sometimes devolve.  Social issues are mostly sorted out at the federal level while issues of public education and other core services are developed more at the state level.  We have great candidates in both parties and in no party, and we need to support them with financial contributions as well as giving time to get them elected.  They have been clearly identified–as have the candidates who will work against the greater good in order to divert public money to private schools (vouchers, ESAs and such).

Our children need and deserve our support.  Their futures depend on quality public education.  Many of our children also desperately need other core services that have been drastically cut.  Let’s send a message to our leaders and candidates.  We don’t want excuses.  We want you to care about all of our citizens.  We expect you to do your job for all of us.

Let’s do this, friends!  Let’s reboot and move forward for a great outcome this November.  Be sure to register to vote if you haven’t already.  Know where your precinct is.  Mark your calendar.  Show up November 8 and help send the right people to the legislature!

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Just Vote

August 22, 2016 1 comment

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Oklahoma is in desperate need of some people who know the difference between good public policy and a kick in the head. That’s why we have so many active races for the Legislature, including 13 run-off elections in which many of you can vote tomorrow.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen different friends go back and forth about a person’s civic obligation to vote. I feel strongly that everybody should be as well-informed as possible and show up on election day. That means, of course, that many of you are going to show up and cancel out my selections. That’s fine too. I can live with not getting my way all the time.

It’s also fair to say that I’m more passionate about some races than others. In 2014, I put a lot of effort into writing about why we needed a new State Superintendent. I didn’t pay attention to the Legislature that much. I didn’t even chime in on the governor’s race until late, not that I think my thoughts there made much difference.

I believe one reason many people stay away from the polls is because there are just so many races. In how many have you really researched the history and positions of the candidates? You can look at party registration, but if you’re like me, sometimes it doesn’t matter. I regularly vote for Democrats and Republicans, and I often wish for more choices than that. Few people I know are straight-party voters, or so they say.

In general, I’m looking for people who support public schools. I want to know that the candidates I choose understand that there’s nothing conservative about gutting state services to the point that roads and bridges crumble and schools have to lay off thousands of teachers.

And to be clear, there’s a good chance that if you say things like this…

For years now we have been taught wrong. Our schools teach atheism and call it science. We are taught a revisionist view of American history, erasing our rich Christian heritage. We’re told that Christians don’t belong in the culture.

SD 41 candidate Paul Blair

…then I won’t vote for you. Come to think of it, I hope most Oklahomans – especially public school teachers – wouldn’t vote for somebody with that mindset. It shows ignorance and  a complete disrespect for what we do in our schools.

Other than the Blair race, the one that really interests me is one in Tulsa County, SD 25, featuring Lisa Kramer and Joe Newhouse. I can’t find anything damning about Newhouse, and Kramer as said she’d be willing to listen to a voucher proposal if public schools were fully funded (and the vouchers included some real accountability). It’s become one of the nastiest contests in the state, though.

In the end, it’s a sitting school board member who also happens to be an accountant and who hasn’t taken dark money from shady pro-voucher groups. As my friend at Blue Cereal Education put it:

Consider the value of having at least one person in state government who knows how math works, or who may just be old-school enough to think her job is to fix problems and serve constituents rather than cater to entrenched power – even if that power currently resides in the darkest recesses of her own party.

Her party, by the way, controls the House, the Senate, and all statewide elected positions in Oklahoma. In spite of what they insist, they can’t put their heads together and raise teacher salaries. No, the best they can do is pass a bill that makes all of us get lovely new license plates based on a drawing that somebody left on the butcher paper at a mall Garfield’s back in the mid 1990s.

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This was a way for the state to raise revenue without raising taxes, since – and again, in spite of one party controlling every major office of the government – they don’t have the votes to do it any other way.

This is what I’m talking about. We get the government we deserve because we don’t get more involved when these people are running.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with a reporter from Education Week who came to Oklahoma to talk about the teachers running for the legislature. He met with a few candidates, as well as some of my fellow activists. What I noticed is how our little movement here is not the only one nationally. The reporter summed up our collective influence, though:

When legislators earlier this year tried to pass through a bill that would expand the use of taxpayer funded vouchers, the group flooded their inboxes and lobbied them on Twitter under the hashtag #oklaed. Despite a robo call from Gov. Fallin to voters in support of the bill, it failed.

“What we’ve seen is a strong bipartisan movement in favor in public education. And the voices have been heard by legislators,” said David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based bipartisan think tank.

No matter what happens tomorrow and in November, #oklaed has made a difference already this year. The magnitude of our impact is still to be determined. The number of educators and concerned parents who get to the polls will determine how strong it is.

 

Mock Outrage and Real Impact

August 16, 2016 Comments off

Facts matter. So do details. So does context – well, to most of us at least.

By now, many of you have probably seen the blog post by Steve Anderson at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs expressing mock outrage at school districts and the funds we’re allegedly hoarding. If you haven’t, it’s worth your time to read. Here’s his opening:

Oklahomans who have been told repeatedly that Oklahoma’s schools are underfunded may be very surprised to learn that the schools in fact have “savings accounts” that are full of cash sitting idle.

Idle is a pretty strong word. We do end each fiscal year with funds in various accounts. That much is true. Most of those funds are in accounts that have limited purposes. I’ll get to that in a minute.

What really caught my attention is that of all the districts in the state, Anderson chose to highlight 11 in a table on his blog.

2015 School Year Revenues

School District

Cash Forward

Largest Balance Item?

Bartlesville $20,577,066 Yes
Bixby $25,774,424 Yes
Clinton $4,562,120 No
Jenks $57,381,683 Yes
Midwest City-Del City $45,491,461 Yes
Moore $33,185,915 No
Norman $42,912,359 No
Sand Springs $21,590,762 Yes
Stillwater $14,005,455 No
Tahlequah $8,611,547 No
Tulsa Union $87,812,848 Yes

It’s strange for a number of reasons. Many of these districts have outspoken leaders who have pushed back against OCPA’s propaganda. Mid-Del, which is mine, is an obvious target. Still, if the point was to shock their readers, why did Anderson not highlight the two districts with more than $100,000,000 in cash forward balances

Last week, KFOR in Oklahoma City asked us for a statement about the OCPA post. We sent one, which they didn’t use in their report (and that was perfectly fine with me):

The OCPA blog post showing that Mid-Del Public Schools carried forward a balance in excess of $45 million is misleading. Among funds included in their calculation are several that cannot be used for every day operational costs. Examples include:

  • $12.4 million in the Sinking Fund
  • $11.4 million in the Building Fund
  • $2.4 million in the Child Nutrition Fund
  • $1.2 million in various Activity Accounts
  • $939 thousand in the Workers Comp Fund

Mid-Del Public Schools began Fiscal Year 2015 (14-15 school year) with about $7.6 million in the General Fund. Mid-Del received $89.6 million in General Fund revenues for that school year. The cash forward amount represented about 8.5% of that figure. As a district, we strive to achieve a cash forward (or carryover) balance in the General Fund of 6% to 8%, so that we can continue operating fluidly before receiving our first state aid payment of the school year in late August.

As a point of reference, Mid-Del ended FY16 with a 5.9% cash forward balance. Even with the mid-year reductions in spending we were able to make after last year’s statewide budget collapse, we were not able to achieve our target fund balance.

The danger with blog posts such as this is that they only serve to confuse the public. On the other hand, they also open a door for conversations to educate the public at-large about the intricacies of public school finance.

Mid-Del Public Schools remains committed and prepared  to providing a quality public school education to the more than 14,000 students who will arrive to meet their teachers in 11 short days. No level of budget cuts will change that.

Yes, I wrote that over a week ago. It’s just taken me a while to finish this post.

And for the record, I was happy with the comments KFOR used in their report. First was Steve Lindley from Putnam City. Well, actually, OCPA President Jonathan Small spoke first:

I do think, when you look at the way our funding is spent in K-12 education in Oklahoma, that it’s clear that the priority is not first the most important person, which is the teacher in the classroom.

It’s clear? Really? We spend money on salary and benefits. We spend money on facilities and utilities. We spend money on instructional materials and technology. Unfortunately, as the districts have had to count on the state less for funding, most of the costs after salary and benefits have been left to districts’ bond projects and building funds.

As data from the Office of Educational Quality and Assurance (OEQA) show, for the 2014-15 school year, state funding generated 47.7% of what school districts had available to spend. (This doesn’t include bond costs, which vary widely among the school districts.) For the 1999-2000 school year, state funding accounted for 57.3% of what school districts had available to spend. State support for public schools has been on a steady decline for a long time now.

Some districts are growing. They need to add to the size of their facilities. Other districts are aging. They need to replace or upgrade their facilities. There just aren’t funds available through the funding formula to meet these needs, so the districts pass bonds through local elections.Many districts also use bond funds to buy buses, which also have an optimal span of usage. As we drive more and more operational costs into our bond projects, meeting these needs becomes more challenging.

Back to the KFOR piece:

Putnam City Spokesman Steve Lindley showed NewsChannel 4 the district’s finances and the “$83 million surplus” the OCPA reported.

About $14 million (which has since shrunk to about $10 million) is available for use in the general fund, he said, though much of it is being saved to pay bills that will be due before property taxes are collected at the end of the year.

Other money is saved in reserves to deal with emergency situations.

“In the financial situation we’re in now, we don’t know what’s coming or when it’s coming,” Lindley said. “We manage our resources very carefully and make the best use of them that we can. And, why would we do anything else?”

Another $11 million was raised with a specific purpose like MAPS or child nutrition or by a specific group like an activity fund or a gift.

That money can not be used for general operations.

And, the lions share of the Putnam City “surplus,” $57 million, are dedicated to paying off voter-approved bond issues.

In other words, just as the Mid-Del figures I provided at the top show, school districts have multiple funds that have very specific purposes. We’re not hiding money from our teachers, and they know it. Either that, or they just don’t understand how school funding works. This statement by Small further illustrates this:

“A lot of our money ends up going more toward bonds and buildings than it does toward teacher salaries,” he said. “Often, school districts are going to voters asking for increased property tax levies for the purpose of bonding instead of for the purpose of teacher salaries.”

The guy in charge at the OCPA should know better. Maybe he does, and this is just his way of sowing the seeds of discord. That seems to be their specialty anyway. If they truly are a public policy research organization, as their website proclaims, I expect better from their research. Maybe that’s why, when a friend sent me the link to Anderson’s post, my browser was reluctant to let me visit the site.

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I’m not the only one who has written about this post. My friend Gary Watts, the recently retired chief financial officer for Sand Springs Public Schools, has started a blog that targets the OCPA for misleading the public.

He also dismisses the real concern districts have with managing cash flow in their general funds:  “They don’t seem to understand that the accrual of those expenses incurred but not paid should already have been made.”  I managed a $40+ million budget for an Oklahoma school district for ten years and I don’t know what he means, probably because he doesn’t.  I think his “accrual of those expenses” is referring to encumbrances under Oklahoma law–and yes those expenses, like salaries, are encumbered fully before they are paid.  The problem that Mr. Anderson chooses not to understand is that revenues are also “accrued”, in our language budgeted, before they are received.

Gary, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I can only wonder why Sand Springs was one of the districts in the spreadsheet at the top!

Even The Lost Ogle called out the OCPA. And they did it more beautifully than any of my blogger friends and I could have:

Before we continue, I should probably inform you that the guy who published the article for OCPA is Koch brothers shill Steve Anderson. From 2011 to 2013, he served as a key advisor and state budget director for Kansas governor Sam Brownback…. Under Brownback and Anderson’s regime, the state slashed income taxes for the rich in an attempt to spur economic growth. Sound familiar? As you probably know, the plan backfired. Kansas faced a revenue shortage, made drastic budget cuts to education and transportation, and eventually landed in a recession. Once again, sound familiar?

Same game plan, different latitude.

In reality, the OCPA has one job: to feed the public a narrative that all government spending is bad. They are a non-profit funded by donors, who can write off the donations the same as they would write off donations to St. Jude’s. They exploit any piece of data, no matter how far they have to reach, just to make public education look bad. Their agenda is one in the same with the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, and the Koch brothers.

What we see now is just a trickle. It’s that nuisance of a drip leaking from your bathroom faucet. You don’t think much about it, because it really doesn’t cost you much. We just have to get ready for the fire hose now. As state elections approach(run-off elections for now), they will only seek to strengthen their base’s loathing of all things public – especially education. By November, when the penny sales tax is on the ballot, their effort will be relentless.

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