Student Population Growth A Major Concern For Some Oklahoma School Districts
Oklahoma has gained 40,000 new students since 2008, but funding from the legislature hasn’t kept up with the growth. More students and less money means some schools are running out of space and have been dipping deep in to their savings accounts. They are making do, but it’s at a tipping point for some districts. Either they get more funding and add more space, or the class sizes get bigger and bigger.
THE NEED FOR MORE SPACE
Weatherford Public Schools in Custer County—Western Oklahoma—is bursting at the seams with kids. Normally, the district gets 20 new students a year, but lately they’ve been topping 100.
“We’ve filled up every closet, nook, and cranny in the district and we’re just at a point where we don’t have anymore space,” said Matt Holder, the Superintendent at Weatherford Public Schools.
To accommodate the rapid growth they’ve had to make some adjustments—shuffling people around, and using space as creatively as they can.
The assistant principal’s old office is now a classroom, and he’s currently sharing space with the school nurse. The cot that the sick kids use is right next to his desk, while the nurse’s supplies are neatly stored in containers around the room.
They’ve also turned large storage closets in to small classrooms for groups of four or five, and the basement is divided in to three different areas for learning. The school built ten new classrooms four years ago, but now they’re all full.
“At this point we’ve been containing the issue, but we’re at the point where we might bring in portable buildings and do some of those things to house some of our students,” said Holder.
They haven’t made the leap yet, because they don’t want to spend the money if they don’t have to.
“We’re in wait and see mode,” he said.
Holder said they’re “bonded up,” meaning they’ve asked the community to increase taxes quite a few times to pay for things like new buses and a new performing arts center, and they don’t feel comfortable asking for any more money. So they’re checking the enrollment numbers on a weekly basis to see if they’ll need the portable buildings for next year. If they don’t use the money for buildings, it will go to educating the kids.
THE CASE FOR MORE MONEY
The population growth is happening across the state. And it's not just a space issue. Thousands rallied on the State Capitol in support of public education last week, screaming “FUND US NOW!”
Senator Clark Jolley, the Chair of the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee, agrees that growing districts are under intense pressure and could use more money.
“School finance is an incredibly tough and difficult issue. This being compounded with the growth in enrollment. The growth in enrollment is not something to sneeze at,” he said.
But Jolley doesn’t think giving more money to education is the answer. He's in favor of changing the way the money is distributed, instead of just increasing it.
He says funding for education has out-paced the student population growth, which has increased by 5% since 2008. Overall funding for education has increased by about 9%, but that increase isn’t coming from the Legislature. They’re giving schools the same amount of money they were in 2008, despite the 40,000 new students. The uptick in spending is primarily coming from local bond issues and school district's savings accounts.
Charles Bradley, the Deputy Superintendent at Mustang Public Schools says their savings account is almost gone.
“We’ve used it. It’s done its job, it’s done its job well. But year over year less money per student is going to show itself in Mustang schools in the form of increased class sizes unless we receive the money we need.”
Mustang has experienced tremendous growth. They added 500 new students just last year.
Bradley says they could have used 20 new teachers last year to keep up with their population increase, but couldn’t hire them because the funding from the state is lagging.
He says if student population growth continues at the same rate, class sizes will get bigger, they’ll possibly let support staff go, and won’t fill teaching positions if teachers decide to leave.
THAT BUDGET SHORTFALL
The administrators at both school districts say the oil and gas industry is the main driver for their growth, and despite the recent downturn in production, they expect their growth to continue.
They are happy to welcome the new families, but also agree that more money from the legislature could alleviate some of the pressure.
Representative Earl Sears, who is chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, says prioritizing the state’s budget is a balancing act, and education is just one of many agencies that need more funding.
“We have continued to make education a priority and we have continued to put money in public education, but therein lies that debate and the argument. Has it been enough? We can have that debate,” he said.
Sears does think Education needs more money, but this year it all boils down to the $611 million budget hole, which Sears refers to as a self-inflicted wound.
He says the economy is doing well because people are moving in to the state and want to work and live here, but the legislature has given out too many tax cuts and has made too many budget promises, leaving them with this shortfall. He said some agencies will face cuts, but as of now, he’s not sure which.
Marla Pankratz, the Principal at Burcham Elementary, says whatever happens they’ll work with what they get.
“That’s what educators do as a whole,” she said. “We get the number and then we try to make it work and we get kids everything we can get them and the best education we can with the funding that we have.”