(Oklahoma City) Even though the state is facing a significant budget shortfall next fiscal year, Oklahoma's K-12 public schools will receive a slight funding increase next year thanks to additional funding earmarked for increased teacher health benefits, according to a Senate budget leader.
Senator Cal Hobson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said the $2 billion appropriations measure is the product of several weeks of negotiations between House and Senate budget writers. SB 1002 was approved by the Senate members of the General Conference Committee on Appropriations on Wednesday.
"At a time when most state agencies are being cut to make up for a revenue shortfall, teachers are getting an increase in health benefits and the public schools are being shielded from the bulk of the budget fallout. I think that speaks volumes about the high priority that this Legislature has placed on public education during a very difficult budgeting process," said Senator Hobson.
The K-12 public schools will receive a total of $2.036 billion a slight increase from the current fiscal year budget of $2.035 billion. The increase can be attributed to an additional $33.6 million that has been earmarked for expanded teacher health benefits.
If the additional health benefits funds are not taken into account, public education would actually be receiving a 1.6 percent reduction from the FY 2002 budget amount originally approved by the Legislature last year.
When all is said and done, however, Oklahoma schools may actually fare better next fiscal year under the proposed budget now being considered by the Legislature. That's because lagging revenue collections have triggered automatic cuts to education and other state agencies in recent months, reducing their overall appropriation for the current year.
"If we pull out of the revenue trouble we've experienced the last several months and see even a modest improvement in collections next fiscal year, the public schools will be operating with a stronger budget," said Senator Hobson.
The key points of the FY 2003 common education budget include:
"Without question, I think one of the biggest achievements is in the area of teacher health benefits. Before this session began, that was the top issue that educators around the state asked us to address. By getting them better benefits, we not only help them, but also increase Oklahoma's chances of attracting and retaining the best teachers for our kids' classrooms," said Senator Johnnie Crutchfield, author of HB 1968, the teacher health benefits bill.
HB 1968 was approved by the House Wednesday and has been sent to the governor's desk for his signature.
"We've done everything we can to shield school classrooms from the budget axe, specifically protecting textbooks and other items that are crucial to a good learning environment. Because of the state's revenue problems, this hasn't been a banner budget year for public education, but considering the circumstances, it's certainly a lot better than it could have been," added Senator Hobson.