Editor’s note: State House District 52 Rep. Charles Ortega (R-Altus) was provided an opportunity to respond.
The Oklahoma Legislature’s behavior following an early December, 2015 heads up that the state was facing a budget crisis gives new meaning to the old adage, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Suddenly and inexplicably, legislative leaders became preoccupied with trivial matters all the while knowing something disastrous was about to happen. Facing an impending crisis, they neglected important priorities while wasting time on emotional issues and passed an abortion bill they knew would be vetoed without any hope of an override. They followed that with posturing indignantly over transgender bathrooms knowing full well this “non-issue” would be effectively dealt with at the local level by boards of education if it ever reared its ugly head.
A great deal of time was spent talking about teacher pay raises again knowing that nothing meaningful would be done to lift Oklahoma from 48th in the nation headed to 50th, rock bottom in this ranking. Politicians tend to talk out of both sides of their mouths promising to create new dedicated revenue sources for teacher pay while capping existing and growing revenue streams. House Bill 2244 passed in 2015, with the votes of our local Legislators, did just that. It capped a dedicated revenue stream that resulted in enormous reductions in funding to school systems in House District 52 and other schools in Oklahoma. Simply put, this poorly written and flawed piece of legislation not only enacted a cap when no cap was needed, it removed a critical hold harmless clause which guaranteed that no school district would ever receive less revenue than in the previous year. As a member of the Altus Board of Education, I was stunned to realize our district would lose in excess of $300,000 this fiscal year alone, placing our district in the top ten losers statewide along with Lawton public schools. Lone Wolf Public Schools has also been identified as a big loser and is now forced to deal with an additional 40 percent cut in funding. These losses will be compounded in future years.
Incumbent legislative members now scramble to promote their nonexistent education “bona fides” touting high level political endorsements. I have never sought an endorsement from any high level politician or special interest organization. The truth is that State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister, political endorsements aside, has withdrawn her endorsement of “The Education Budget” stating “the budget is flawed and will pose serious challenges to school districts across Oklahoma.” She implied in a press release that members of the legislature simply did not understand the school funding formula. That formula, while complicated, can and should be understood by anyone proficient in seventh grade math. She further implied that much of what is wrong with this budget could have been prevented had she been fully consulted and involved in the education budget process. Current legislative ‘leaders” realize they are being criticized for “fiddling” for months only to produce in a somewhat secretive and last minute manner a budget described by State Auditor Gary Jones as “smoke and mirrors”. More and more we and the “leaders” are hearing the phrase “failed leadership.” What’s done is done. Another school year will begin with less money and many more students. At a time we should be providing our children with more education, we now offer them less. It is time for a change.
John N. Thomas