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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma educators stood with state House Democrats on Wednesday and renewed their call for a school funding hike, keeping the spotlight on an issue that brought thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol building two weeks ago.
House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, of Oklahoma City, said educators and those they serve are frustrated by the lack of progress in restoring what he says has been $200 million in cuts to school budgets in recent years. There are greater demands than ever now on schools to implement unfunded education mandates and the high-stakes testing of students, Inman said.
"We've had enough," Inman said as he stood alongside fellow Democrats and a group of teacher and school administrators at the state Capitol. "Education is important to the people of Oklahoma."
Warner Public Schools Superintendent David Vinson said budgetary problems has forced him to inform four employees of the rural school district that he cannot afford to re-hire them.
"I don't know what our budget outlook looks like," Vinson said.
As many as 25,000 teachers, administrators and students rallied at the Capitol on March 31 to urge lawmakers to restore public education funding. Officials said public schools are operating with roughly 1,500 fewer teachers than in 2008, despite an increase of about 40,000 students. Educators said per-pupil spending by the state is $3,032, which ranks next-to-last among the 50 states.
Educators also called for a pay raise for teachers, which would be their first in seven years. According to the National Education Association, the average starting salary for an Oklahoma teacher is $31,606 per year, while the national average is $36,141.
Educators had thrown their support behind legislation that would appropriate $57.5 million a year in additional revenue to public education when state revenue growth is at least 1 percent until new revenue totals $575 million. But shortly after the rally, the legislation was amended to reduce the new education allocation by half.
"Within 24 hours it was clear we were not heard," Vinson said.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said House Republicans want support at least $100 million in new funding for public schools next year but that finding the money will be difficult lawmakers already have less to spend than last year.
"Keep in mind that a very large percentage of that will have to go to health care costs," Hickman said. He said between $40 million and $60 million is needed to pay for rising teacher health care costs associated with the new federal health care law.
"The goal is, in a challenging budget year, to try to find somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million," the speaker said.
Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said Fallon supports increased funding for public schools and is working with lawmakers to help get more education dollars in next year's budget.
"However, the state is facing some tough fiscal realities," communications director Alex Weintz said in a statement. Although total tax collections this year are increasing, general revenue, which funds education and other priorities, is down, Weintz said.
"As a result, the state is facing a $190 million budget shortfall that will necessarily result in spending cuts," he said.
Fallin, who called for a $50 million increase in the public education budget in her State of the State address in February, does not support cutting education, Weintz said.
"But any request for new funding has to be placed in the very real context of a tough budget year that will include cuts to agencies," he said.
Despite the budget shortfall, however, Fallon supports legislation pending in the House and Senate that would reduce the state's 5.25 percent top income tax rate by a quarter of a percentage point once revenues improve.
House Bill 2642: http://bit.ly/Pj3V9M