Schools must “prepare for worst,” Pennington says

Ponca City Now - March 29, 2016 11:20 am

By Beverly Bryant/News Director

Kay County school districts must "hope for the best and plan for the worst," Ponca City Superintendent Dr. David Pennington said Monday night.

He addressed a crowd at West Middle School to discuss the state’s budget crisis and what it means, in particular, to education and local schools.

Pennington began the talk with explanations of funding formulas and showed where legislative action spelled cuts in funding to local schools.

In the end, however, it boils down to much less money per student in all school districts.

The second part of his talk focused on what happens going forward.

The superintendent said the Ponca City School District must:

  • Save as much money this year as possible
  • Implement a hiring freeze
  • Halt spending on supplies and materials
  • Reduce instructional budgets
  • And consider having fewer days of school.

"Some of us have the option of using hours rather than days to determine school year," he said.

He said reducing student contact days (the days students go to school) saves money in several areas:

  • Transportation
  • Payroll
  • Fuel
  • Teaching assistants
  • Crossing guards
  • Substitutes
  • Custodians
  • Technology
  • Secretaries

"Those are all support personnel," Pennington said. "They are the lowest paid employees in our district. They are very valued and can least afford to go unpaid."

He said there are other options which must be considered, including staff reductions.

Pennington said "85 percent of general fund expenditures are salaries and benefits for district personnel."

Other areas include:

  • Eliminating student transportation

"Booster clubs/activity accounts pay for athletic and fine arts travel. We have to go a long ways to play schools of the same size. Our closest competitor is Stillwater. We spend a lot of money on transportation to Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

  • Reduce instructional days which could save $25,000 a day (the estimated minimum, through cuts in support staff salaries).
  • Eliminate non-revenue sports such as golf, track swimming, tennis
  • Eliminate 8th grade sports to save $54,000
  • Eliminate 6th – 7th grade band/orchestra, to save $102,000
  • Reduce custodial services
  • Seek volunteer substitutes.

"I never thought, in my career, that I’d ever have to consider these things," Pennington said.

He said the options Ponca City’s Board of Education most likely will take would include a reduction in secondary staff; a reduction in substitute teacher costs (excluding long-term and contract subs); salary freezes; and a reduction in student contact and/or employee contract days.

He did say that the 2016 graduation date will remain as scheduled, on May 20, 2016.

"All our elementary classes exceed class size maximums," the superintendent said.

"Class sizes don’t mathematically work the same in high school. You may have 27 students in one class in the elementary schools. In high school, you may have 27 for one class and then 15 in another, such as AP English classes.

"You can’t put all of those students in one class, because of band in first hour, or orchestra, or physics, or statistics. Those are classes that are essential to students for a quality education and we have to offer them when they fit into a student’s schedule," Pennington said. "We don’t want them to have to choose whether to take AP English or orchestra, or Spanish or orchestra. There will be situations where class sizes don’t match up like we would like them to. And students will have to make some choices."

The board will have to negotiate with teachers and support staff, Pennington said.

"We may have to negotiate no salary increases," he said. "We have a great relationship, but we may have to have a discussion I’ve never had in 22 years. I’ve never ever not negotiated a step increase with my staff. That’s probably 1.8 percent per step. We’re not talking about a cost of living increase, but minimal increases in someone’s salary."

In Ponca City, Pennington said, "We would keep our finals schedule and graduation schedule the same. We would not do a 4-day week, but we would start later in the year, end earlier, and take longer breaks."

"Is there any hope?" Pennington asked. He then outlined Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposals to increase revenue include:

  • Sales Tax expansion $200,000,000
  • Cigarette Tax increase $182,000,000
  • Agency revolving funds $125,000,000
  • Agency revenue sharing $125,000,000
  • School consolidation no estimate
  • School building funds $200,000,000

Another funding problem, Pennington said, is the failure of Oklahoma to collect sales tax for online purchases.

"The Internet is killing Main Street Oklahoma," Pennington said.

He also talked about school consolidation discussions.

"Consolidation doesn’t save much — only if you close schools. If we got rid of every superintendent, we would still be 49th in education, only above Mississippi," he said.

"Some schools are looking at their building fund. In some districts it is a lot of money. In others it’s not very much. In Ponca City we have about $1.2 million a year," he said.

"President Boren has circulated an initiative petition for a state penny sales tax to be dedicated to education," Pennington said. "For public schools that would be about $600 million and would include $5,000 raises for teachers. But that doesn’t do anything to keep our staff at the same level, or to hire people back, or to keep schools going on a daily basis. But Boren says he has yet to hear a better idea."

The problem, Pennington said, is a reveue problem in Oklahoma.

"Former Gov. David Walters has written an editorial that will be published this week that says our revenue crisis is about 30 percent oil and gas. That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it," Pennington said. "People ask me all the time what we need to do.

"We need ot ask ourselves what’s important. What’s important to me is kids," he said. "It’s important to me that we provide the best education we can for the students who attend Ponca City Public Schools every day. We can’t do that with the budget cuts we have. We’re doing a good job, yes; teachers are working hard, yes; but you can’t take that money out of our budget and provide the same quality of education.

"We are very committed in this state to low taxes," Pennington said. "We’re proud of that. We have to decide – how’s that working for us? Can we provide the education and social services for our students?"

He said some say the budget crisis must be solved by "starving the beast."

"That’s 27 student in a classroom," Pennington said. "Every time that class size goes up, the quality of education goes down.

"We have to decide. If you are of the opinion that what is currently happening is not in the best interest of our children, you have to elect different people," he said.

"Mary Fallin did exactly what she told us she would do. We can be mad because we don’t like the results, but she did exactly what she told us she would do. Rep. Steve Vaughan voted against the internet use tax. He did exactly what he said he was going to do. He said he would never vote for a tax increase," Pennington said.

"If we want individuals to represent us in Oklahoma City, we have to let Vaughan know that times are tough in Oklahoma and we know you are a fiscal conservative, but we’re in a crisis in this state and we have to think differently. We need to say ‘I will still support you and work in your campaign, if you get an opponent because you vote for a tax increase.’ Or you have to have a candidate with another point of view, with an obvious difference in philosophy."

Pennington said there are those who think this is good for the state and the budget crisis will wring all the excess out of state government.

"Education cuts never heal," he said. "If you experiment with 30 kids in the classroom to see if that works, you won’t get that back. If a student has to choose between classes, they cannot get that experience back. Tax cuts never heal."

He said he was fortunate enough to raise his children right after the passage of HB 1017, passed 26 years ago. Among other things, it limited classroom sizes.

"My children had that benefit. They got to take classes they needed and had smaller class sizes. Because of that, they had a great education. My oldest is a professor of mathematics at Creighton University. You don’t get that without 1017."

A member of the audience asked Pennington if he would publicly defend his salary.

"Obviously that’s a tough question," the superintendent said. "I would say that in 2008-09 I did take a salary reduction. I am the only certified or support person in this district who did that. My salary now is still less than it was in 2008-09."

Another audience member asked about funding from the lottery.

"The reason the lottery did not solve our problems after Gov. Brad Henry said the video lottery would make us the most money, is because the Legislature cut the video lottery," Pennington said. "We have cut taxes. Our cuts are three times what the lottery brings in.

"Look at the state of Oklahoma and our people," Pennington said. "Our citizens have always been willing to step up, which is why we passed the lottery. This is policy and takes writing to the Legislature. We didn’t do anything different than we did in the 1980s. HB1017 and SQ640 put the current law into effect that required 75 percent of the people to approve a tax increase."

He answered other questions about when school breaks would be extended.

"We haven’t gotten that far to know what breaks we would extend," Pennington said. "Probably
Christmas, probably some breaks in the spring. Maybe professional development days. If we had more professional development days during the year, we would not have to hire substitute teachers, which would be a win-win for us. That does not affect teacher pay. It is the same whether we do 177 days or 1,080 hours."

(See story on school funding for more on this issue.)


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