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'The new normal'

With an ongoing budget shortfall, the state Department of Education zeroed out funding for National Board Certified Teachers

Clifton Adcock July 6th, 2011

It took dozens of hours of videotaping class sessions, more than 60 pages worth of writing and more than two years for Meredith Wronowski, a science teacher at Oklahoma City’s Capitol Hill High School, to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

Wronowski, who holds a master’s degree in education and was a research scientist prior to becoming a teacher, said the process was as challenging as getting her master’s degree.

The teacher training program, recognized as one of the best and most rigorous in the nation, takes an average of about 200 hours to complete, and two to three years often goes into being certified.

“I really consider completing my National Board certification an equivalent amount of work to completing my master’s of education,” Wronowski said. “It’s a training program first and foremost designed to make you the best teacher you can possibly be.”

The state previously paid teachers who underwent the rigors of obtaining National Board certification a bonus of $5,000 each year for the 10-year duration of the certification. Oklahoma has approximately 3,000 teachers who are National Board certified. In Oklahoma City Public Schools, there are 115 teachers and 35 speech pathologists who would be eligible for the bonus, according to Karl Springer, superintendent of OKC Public Schools.

Despite some major budget cuts in the past couple of years because of state revenue shortfalls, the state has continued to fund the bonuses, albeit at a lower level. However, the National Board Certified Teachers bonus fund was one of several programs to be cut back to zero after a new budget was narrowly passed on June 23 by the State Board of Education.

School administrators and teachers have both said they were caught off guard by the deep cuts to some of the individual programs in the budget.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Wronowski said. “As an educator who devoted a tremendous amount of time to becoming the absolute most professional educator and best educator I can be, it is disappointing in that you feel the worth has been taken out of it.”

Some program heads and district officials said they had little warning that some of the programs would be completely cut and the extent of other cuts.

However some of the cuts — including zeroing out the National Board Certification Revolving Fund — appear to have been in the works since at least January.

The budget shortfall has also spurred State Superintendent Janet Barresi to call for State Department of Education workers to assist districts in finding private donors, such as corporations and foundations, to help fund some of the affected programs.

When asked whether the use of corporate donors and foundations covering the expenses of programs that had been funded by the state was a solution for this budget year or a long-term solution, Barresi said she was concentrating on get ting through this fiscal year first.

During the June 23 meeting, Barresi said she and her staff had been fighting to keep the programs until noon the day before.

“Some of these programs that we had to zero out were very emotional decisions,” she said. “These are programs that I believe in deeply, and I appreciate their work. We are going to be looking for opportunities for public-private partnerships so these programs can be maintained.”

Barresi said her staff and state legislators all worked to reduce the impact of the cuts in the classroom, and went program by program to see what money could be saved.

“We’ve been focusing on this budget ever since the Legislature convened,” Barresi said. “This is the third year in a row that the state budget has had a shortfall, and it has significantly impacted education. So we had to look at what our priorities were.”

Although Barresi presented a budget to the Legislature that kept funding levels flat, when the final budget numbers came in from lawmakers, funding for common education was cut 4.1 percent, leading to dramatic reductions that Barresi called “heartbreaking.”

Others, however, say that heartbreak could have been avoided.

The budget

At the June 23 meeting, Barresi presented a budget to the State Board of Education reflecting a reduction in state funding that affected three of the four funding categories.

The total amount for state aid funding for this fiscal year is $1.8 billion, compared to around $1.9 billion last fiscal year. The state education department fund dropped to $21.4 million in this fiscal year, and while the textbook fund remained steady at $33 million, the school activities fund dropped to a little more than $401 million.

Some board members expressed concern that they had only received the budget the day before the meeting, and the vote to approve the budget was split among the board 3-3. Barresi cast the deciding vote, allowing the budget approval to pass.

However, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard said he was skeptical as to whether the cuts to education could not have been avoided.

“I believe going back to the legislative session that they didn’t have to cut education to the extent they did. They just didn’t make education a priority,” Ballard said.

Ballard said he was shocked to hear that education would be cut, especially with tax collections rising. He added that income tax cuts this year, which took nearly $60 million out of the state’s budget, coupled with a lack of eliminating or reforming some tax credits helped create the illusion of needed cuts.

“People say they want smaller government; this is what it looks like,” he said. “I’ve never seen decimation to this extent. I know the economy has been difficult, but there are things that could have been done this year to alleviate the budget cuts.”

In addition to a lack of funding from the state, Barresi said programs in the activities budget were also hit because the Education Department chose to fully fund the retirement system and support the employee health benefit allowance. However, Ballard has taken issue with the question of whether employee benefits are fully funded.

Barresi said districts’ contracts with teachers usually run through August, which does not line up with the fiscal year. Therefore, the funding for the 2012 school year for employee benefits only runs through June, she said.

Ballard accused Barresi of shorting the districts two months’ worth of payments for employee benefits. “I don’t know any way that it can possibly be looked at where someone can say they’re funding it,” he said. “It shorts us by two months.”

Barresi said arguments that the districts would be shorted two months were “disingenuous,” and that schools must bring their teacher contracts in line with the fiscal year.

“Nobody’s going to get shorted money,” Barresi said. “Teachers will continue to be paid at their salary.”

Early requests

Prior to the June approval of the budget, the State Board of Education had passed a budget request in December 2010, when former Superintendent Sandy Garrett was still over the department. That budget requested all funding levels be brought back up to 2008 levels — an increase of $381 million.

However, when the budget request was submitted to legislative staff on Jan. 28, following Barresi’s swearing in, it included a notation stating that Barresi “does not support the request approved by the (State Board of Education) prior to her leadership.”

Alongside the budget numbers approved by the board, labeled as FY 12 request, was a column titled “FY 12 Barresi Request.”

Barresi said she presented both budgets to the Legislature, but she said the budget request originally passed by the board was “unrealistic and irresponsible, in my opinion. While I did present their request, I also presented an alternative budget that was a realistic approach to the fiscal realities of this time.”

The Legislature used Barresi’s request as a working budget and went from there, she said.

“Our discussions with the Legislature wasn’t about more, more, more, it was about investing in effective programs that could affect students’ academic achievement,” she said. “While some may say I didn’t fight for education, I was in the room and I know exactly what happened.”

Oklahoma Gazette obtained a working budget draft intended to be submitted to the Legislature. The budget request shows that no money to fund the bonus program was specifically requested by Barresi.

Furthermore, the projected amount to be spent for the entire 2011 fiscal year was at zero. But that wasn’t the case.

The day before the request was sent to the Legislature, the board approved a measure that sent a little more than $12 million to National Board Certified Teachers and speech pathologists for the bonuses.

Caught unaware

Wronowski said she was disappointed when she learned the state would no longer provide the bonus, and that there was no warning the bonuses would no longer be funded.

“Teachers around the state, we heard when everyone else did,” Wronowski said. “I was not at all thinking it would disappear. You never think it will get to that point, especially without them doing something like contacting the major teacher unions or contacting the districts or even getting a letter in the mail.”

Both Ballard and Springer said they were not expecting the fund to be zeroed out.

While Barresi encouraged districts to use the $33 million in textbook funds to pay for the National Board stipends, Springer said such a plan was not feasible for his district, which would have to spend the equivalent of 20 teachers’ salaries to fund the stipends.

Damon Gardenhire, spokesman for the state education department, said the agency had been publicly warning of cuts for some time.

“We made sure to communicate publicly in statements in the media and elsewhere that this was going to be a difficult year, and we would be faced with hard choices and difficult decisions,” Gardenhire said.

According to records from the department, the defunding of the teacher bonus program was considered as far back as January. According to the budget submitted to the Legislature, no money was requested for the National Board Certified Teacher fund in either the board’s budget request or Barresi’s request.

Gardenhire said it would cost about $15 million to fully fund the bonuses this year.

“That’s a big reason why it couldn’t be achieved this year,” he said. “It’s really an issue of fully funding it or not funding it. I think it would be an insult to teachers to fund just a small portion of it.”

Barresi said cutting the valuable National Board Certified Teacher program was one of her hardest decisions.

“I can tell you we continue to explore with the Legislature, and are open to see what we can do to get funds into that,” Barresi said. “It’s one we’re continuing to focus on. It’s very important we not give a sense of false hope, but the work has not stopped.”

Springer said he hopes the Legislature and the district’s foundation work to help fund the stipends.

“We are praying that the Legislature will fund a supplemental appropriation in the middle of the year to fund that,” Springer said. “We really are not in the position to fund that in this coming year out of our budget.”

However, the chance of a supplemental funding request is unlikely, Barresi said.

“We do not anticipate a supplemental appropriation request, I want to make that very, very clear,” she said. “We are looking at opportunities to provide public-private partnerships. This is the new normal.”

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07.06.2011 at 12:27 Reply

Good idea! Reducing the salaries of Oklahoma's best teachers is a great way to stick it to those fat cats. I can't tell you how tired I am of seeing teachers drive around in Porsches while complaining about their high salaries! Just because teaching requires a college degree and is incredibly important to the future doesn't mean I'm willing to fund it with taxes, no sir! I think reducing teacher salaries will solve the budget woes without any long term repercussions, as would paying politicians minimum wage and expecting good legislation.


07.06.2011 at 03:03 Reply

Brendan, I love your comment.  Jon Stewart would be proud!


07.07.2011 at 01:37 Reply

Now you know why the state of Oklahoma trains and EXPORTS some of the BEST teachers in the country! Continue to insult Oklahoma teachers, refuse to pay us a fair wage and we will continue to leave.   Wake up Oklahoma!  You risk losing a critical mass of your very best teachers. Barresi would prefer the NBCTs to leave so that she can more easily privatize the system.       Jason Fritze, NBCT, Laguna Beach, CA   (formerly of Norman, Oklahoma)


07.09.2011 at 12:54 Reply

Frankly I think Oklahoma legislators SHOULD be paid minimum wage for as long as they are in office. They need the reality therapy, and nothing like a Spartan existence of minimum wage to do that. No  or little retirement benefits as well. Medical? well, well, it should be no better than the rest of us get from out employers, so likely none at all.