Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:
The Oklahoman. Aug. 11, 2019.
— Truly a new school year for OKC district
For the students, teachers and patrons of Oklahoma City Public Schools, this school year will be unlike any they have experienced.
The district has been transformed since the 2018-19 school year ended in May, the result of an overhaul that closed 15 schools and reconfigured or relocated 17 others. Six former elementary schools are now middle schools; four mid-highs are now middle schools or high schools.
Elementary schools will house students in pre-K through grade 4. Middle schools are for students in grades 5 to 8. High schools will house grades 9 through 12. This alone is a change from the grade bands that had been used.
No doubt this transition will be difficult for many. However, the district's employees and patrons would do well to heed the advice of teacher of the year, Christina Kirk, who last year taught at Rogers Middle School but has been relocated to Star Spencer Mid-High.
"This is our moment to embrace change with confidence," Kirk told her colleagues at a recent event to kick off the school year.
The overhaul is designed to make better use of the district's school buildings, which were at 60% of capacity, then take savings that are generated and use them to pay for improvements districtwide.
When the plan is fully implemented, 84% of elementary schools should have three or more classrooms per grade - instead of 40% — and allow for the sort of collaboration among teachers that is so important. In the middle schools, the percentage with enough students to support three or more classrooms will climb from 30% to 92%; at the high school level, the rate jumps to 63% from 30% today.
Full-time counselors will be available at all elementary schools; formerly, only one in four had a full-time counselor. Each elementary school will have full-time physical education, art and music teachers, and more STEM offerings. All sixth-graders will have access to fine arts, performing arts, athletics and other electives — compared with 20% previously.
The school board approved the overhaul after a series of meetings that gave the public a chance to offer their suggestions and concerns. Some concerns remain — for example, a fight is ongoing over Northeast Academy, which was closed and replaced by Classen School of Advanced Studies. A renaming that doesn't include Northeast is the subject of a legal battle.
However, The Oklahoman's Nuria Martinez-Keel reported recently that the many changes have prompted residents in northeast Oklahoma City to become more engaged.
The principal at F.D. Moon Middle School said she has been swamped with support and donations. At Douglass Mid-High, Principal Thomas McNeeley said people "are more alert because they want to see our students succeed."
"I think it's always been there," McNeeley said, "but with schools being closed and names being changed, people are like, 'We want to make sure we get back to our schools and help students.'"
That's a positive. City residents should hope many more will result from this new beginning for the district.
Muskogee Phoenix. Aug. 11, 2019.
— Ceremonial signing reminder of law's import
The recent ceremonial signing of a bill that will require that state agencies post annual reports identifying the federal funds received by each and the extent to which they are relied upon served as a reminder of the importance of government transparency.
Senate Bill 271 was signed officially on April 29, but Gov. Kevin Stitt gathered with co-authors Sen. Nathan Dahm and Rep. Kyle Hilbert and bill backers for a more formal signing to boost awareness of the law and its impact. Knowing how much federal funds a state agency receives and the extent to which it relies on those funds will present a better picture for taxpayers who care about state spending.
According to reporting from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Dahm, a Broken Arrow Republican, said lawmakers too often focus on appropriated funds while ignoring other funding sources state agencies regularly receive and use. That tendency apparently has been used by some as smoke and mirrors during the budgeting process.
Now there may be times when federal funds may make an agency appear flush with funds — the infusion of stimulus funds following the global market collapse in 2008, for example. Lawmakers must exercise caution to guard against taking punitive measures for temporary infusion of funds.
But overall, transparency in government should be the goal in every policy decision. And knowing what funds an agency has available and the extent to which it relies on those funds is a good thing — we look forward to reading those annual reports.
Tulsa World. Aug. 13, 2019.
— Stitt pushes toward a $2 billion reserve in a state that can't provide adequate government services
The state's budget accountants have wrapped up the balance sheet on fiscal year 2019, and it came with a nice gift for the state's future.
General revenue funds came in 5.5 percent over the projections used to write the budget for the year that ended June 30, meaning the state had an extra $354.6 million. By law, that is deposited to the constitutional "Rainy Day" fund.
That puts the fund over $800 million, an all-time high.
Gov. Kevin Stitt says that's not enough. Last year, at the governor's insistence, the Legislature left unspent $200 million that was available for appropriation. In the state's news release announcing the end-of-the-fiscal-year balances, Stitt said his goal is to build the state's reserves to $2 billion.
There's obvious wisdom in planning for bad times. We all remember the past decade. And if the state budget were in the right place, building a bigger reserve would be the right choice, but that's not the case.
Due to unwise cuts in the state income taxes and a long state recession, Stitt inherited a government that was starved for funding. Successive years of budget cuts and budget failures meant public schools, state colleges and universities, health and mental health programs remain far short of where they should be. One good year doesn't provide the kind of repair needed.
Not to be too cynical, but why stop at $2 billion? Why not dedicate all state growth revenue to reserves? Why not cut appropriations so we can have a $3 billion reserve or more?
The reason is that the business of state government isn't building a bigger reserve. The job is meeting the state's legitimate needs for basic government service. Until we meet that standard, the governor should keep his desire for more savings in perspective.