Oklahoma education leaders wait for word on funding

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- While Oklahoma legislators have spent much of the session so far publicly debating school safety and whether to allow armed teachers in schools, the discussion that educators and administrators are really interested in is taking place behind closed doors -- how much money common education will receive in next year's budget.

Funding for public schools in Oklahoma is one of many contentious education-related issues being hammered out by legislative leaders this year, but an agreement on how much money will go to public schools this year hasn't been reached.

Rep. Scott Martin, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said last week that officials with the House, Senate and governor's office are nearing consensus on a supplemental budget proposal for select agencies to finish out the fiscal year that ends June 30, but no final decision has been made.

"We're very close, but we're not ready to announce anything just yet," Martin said Friday.

Martin said a supplemental funding agreement will have to take into account the overall budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

State Superintendent Janet Barresi has asked lawmakers for nearly $40 million to finish out the current fiscal year, mostly to pay for recently enacted legislative mandates like the new Achieving Classroom Excellence, or ACE, end-of-instruction tests and new reading proficiency requirements. Also included in her request is $8.5 million for increased costs of teacher health benefits and nearly $6 million to help districts cover the estimated increase of nearly 10,000 new students since the end of the last school year.

Fallin's executive budget, however, only included a request for $8.5 million in supplemental funding to help pay for the costs of the flexible benefit allowance for public school teachers and staff. The actual costs of those benefits have exceeded the projections that were available during the 2012 session.

The governor and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have said increasing funding for common education will be a priority in next year's budget.

"We are extremely dedicated to making sure common education receives a significant increase in the upcoming year," Martin said. "The exact amount is what we're discussing right now."

A trio of Republican senators earlier this year, including the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. John Ford, asked to increase common education funding by at least $75 million for the next fiscal year.

Democrats, meanwhile, have consistently hammered Republicans for talking about increased funding for education while contemplating a one-quarter of 1 percent cut to the state's personal income tax that is expected to cost about $120 million annually.

Besides funding, school safety has been a top priority for legislators in the wake of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Recommendations that emerged from a special task force created after the shooting have been drafted into bills that are working through the legislative process, including a measure requiring public schools to conduct drills to prepare students and teachers for possible intruders. Other recommendations by the task force include mental health training for school staffs and requiring that unauthorized firearms discovered on a school's grounds be reported to law enforcement authorities.

Public school districts also could decide whether to allow armed teachers in classrooms under a bill that has been approved by the House and is pending in the Senate. The bill, which would give districts the option of paying for teachers to receive a minimum of 120 hours of specialized training in order to carry a firearm into a school, has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

That bill has been opposed by many school officials who have raised concerns over the safety and liability of allowing armed teachers.

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