Political News

Oklahoma superintendent seeks $221M boost for schools

Posted January 4

— Oklahoma school Superintendent Joy Hofmeister wants lawmakers to consider adding $221 million more to an already stressed public schools budget for textbooks and covering school employee health insurance, among other things.

Hofmeister delivered a budget presentation Wednesday to members of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee ahead of the legislative session that begins next month. Oklahoma's public schools received about $2.4 billion in total legislative appropriations last fiscal year.

"We recognize this is one of the largest requests that will be brought to you," Hofmeister said. "We feel we have a duty and an obligation to make sure the request that we ask is going to fulfill the needs of students."

The state faces a nearly $870 million shortfall in the budget that starts July 1.

Hofmeister, a Republican who was elected in 2014, seeks $66 million for textbooks and nearly $40 million to help pay for increased costs of health insurance for school employees.

She separately proposed a $282 million package to give teachers a $3,000 annual pay raise and add four additional instructional days to the school year. Oklahoma has not increased its minimum salary schedule since 2008, and its average annual salary including benefits is about $44,921, according to figures released by the Department of Education on Wednesday. That compares to a regional average of about $48,450 and a national average of $58,064.

"Regionally, we've got to work to provide regionally competitive pay or we will continue to lose teachers to other states," Hofmeister said.

Gov. Mary Fallin and Republican leaders in the House and Senate have emphasized the need to raise pay, but say it'll be difficult without raising taxes.

Rep. Leslie Osborn, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said it's likely lawmakers will consider a plan to phase in raises over several years, but she said she would like to see any such proposal also include a pay hike for all state employees.

"I don't think we should do one until we do both simultaneously, a stepped-in pay raise for state employees and teachers, because they're both paid poorly," said Osborn, R-Mustang.

Some Republican House members criticized Hofmeister for not presenting legislators with more ideas for saving money.

"In a year in which we are facing a revenue deficit close to $900 million dollars, Superintendent Hofmeister offers no real solutions for streamlining our education system to make it more efficient and to target student needs," said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City.

Hofmeister is facing felony charges that accuse her of illegally raising money for her 2014 election bid, but she didn't address those allegations Wednesday. Hofmeister has pleaded not guilty and said previously she would "vigorously defend" herself and had no plans to step down.

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This story has been corrected to show total state appropriations last year were about $2.4 billion.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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