Friday, April 6, 2018

Danger, #oklaed!! SB1015 and SB1398

“Danger, Will Robinson!” I remember that cheesy television series, produced long before believable special effects, Lost in Space, about the family adrift in the universe with their trusty robot, Robot.  Will, the son of the intrepid travelers, was a bright if mischievous, young man who often needed Robot to pull him back from the brink of disaster. For people my age, the phrase, yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson" in your best robotic voice is shorthand for “Look out! Pitfalls ahead.”

As we have seen a huge (and getting larger every day) demonstration of educators, parents, students, and community, for more school funding and more funding for vital state services, I learned about two bills that will be on the House agenda for Monday, ready to be voted on by the full House.

Both are probably going to be sold as ‘helping’ #oklaed, but Robot is screaming in my ears, waving his mechanical arms wildly. I am asking you to write to your House Representative and 
ask for NO votes on both measures.

SB 1015 will, if I read it right, add “employees of an educational service provider contracted with a school district pursuant to subsection G of Section 5-117 of this title who perform functions that would otherwise be performed by a school district employee…” to the Flexible Benefits Allowance program for teachers.  This will include any “teacher, principal, supervisor, administrator, counselor, librarian, or certified or registered nurse” now employed by a charter school in our state, who will be added to the pool for state-paid ‘statutory’ health insurance coverage. I will be totally supportive of such a move, IF (and it’s a huge IF) the state, who pays for the flex benefit program, adds funds to the current allocation to cover the new employees. I see nothing in the bill as currently written that addresses adding funds.

The flex benefit allocation is always on the brink of disaster, as health-care costs rise and state school budgets dwindle. A large number of our new dollars we’re seeing slowly and grudgingly added to the school budget will be immediately claimed to cover flex benefits.

SO, add more employees to this coverage…but also add ALL the new money to fund the employees.  

I’m going to ask my Rep for a no on this…I want that assurance before I’m supportive.

The other bill that makes me shiver also has the awful potential to actually create more trouble for schools, even as it appears to be supportive and helpful.

SB1398 will give districts the ‘discretion’ to use bonding funds (you know, those elections we beg everyone to vote yes for?) for day-to-day ‘operations’.  Again, on the surface, this could be sold as a way to allow schools to ‘free up’ some cash without the strict restrictions of traditional bonding funds. Quoting from the original bill, ‘erecting, remodeling, repairing, or maintaining school buildings, for purchasing furniture, equipment and computer software…for repairing and maintaining computer systems and equipment, for paying energy and utility costs, for purchasing telecommunications utilities and services, for paying fire and casualty insurance premiums…for purchasing security systems, for paying salaries of security personnel…’ all can be paid for with bonded funds…loans the local voters agree to take on for the schools. These bond elections must pass with a super-majority, 60%, rather than the 51% for most elections because they are serious obligations and investments that the local community takes on for schools.

Remember all those public school critics who complain about rich schools that build a brand new football stadium, or a new science building? Or districts who buy intelligent classroom technology, and provide laptops or tablets to students? Those investments are secured through bonding…the local community agreeing to invest in the schools. Their property tax (ad valorem) assessment determines the bonding capacity for each district.  

SB1398 will ‘free up’ those funds secured through bond elections for…anything. For copy paper. For office supplies. For teacher salaries.  It would be the equivalent of our paying our mortgage with a credit card…it is not something that makes good fiscal sense. It’s the act of a desperate person trying to survive until the next paycheck and hope he can pay down that balance.
But to me there’s a much bigger problem with this bill, and it comes down to the Constitutional right to a free education for every child in our state. Not just the rich kids who live in expensive homes that drive up the ability of school districts to incur these bond obligations.  If this bill passes, zip code will determine a student’s access to schools that are well-equipped, buildings that are not falling apart (since some desperate districts will STOP using bonded funds for the capital improvements they need and use those funds to support the day-to-day operations of their schools – on credit), to well-paid teachers. Now the accident of a child’s address will lead to the loss of opportunities or the expansion of opportunities.

This bill also gives me flashbacks to another time when the legislature ‘freed up’ districts from some of the regulations to provide textbooks to schools, and follow strict guidelines for library services and librarians to schools. Years ago another legislature ‘deregulated’ all these rules…told districts IF they wanted, they could spend that money the state sent for ‘other’ necessities. And what is the result of that deregulation? Tattered textbooks and school libraries that are closed, with no new books for years, and no library media professional to support students and teachers.

Robot’s arms are flailing! 

We’ve tried this kind of deregulation before. While it might allow a district to survive another year, it does NOT address issues of inequity and student need.  I’ve seen the devastating results of deregulation in school libraries, and I know the cause is that previous legislature’s unwillingness to do the right thing and fully fund schools.

The potential results of SB1398 will follow that same path to limited opportunities for students and 
fewer resources for their students.

The potential results of SB1015 (unless it’s fully funded) will be a depletion of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Activity Fund…the fund that had been shorted more than once in recent years, leading to unexpected cuts to programs across the state.

The potential results of both these bills will be to cut funding from the fragile budget the legislature is trying to cobble together as I write.

Until my concerns are addressed, and my fears proved wrong, I must fight these two bills. I hope you’ll join me and write to YOUR Representative and ask for that NO vote on Monday.
And you might also ask, pretty-please, for a vote on capital gains

And I’ll see you at the Capitol Monday, continuing to press for fully-funded classrooms, and raises for our support personnel and state workers. This is NOT the time to add to the inequity in our state.

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