Earlier this month Governor Brad Henry outlined his budget plans for FY 2011. Immediately the OPEA noted a number of flaws which are likely to have a dire impact on state employees and ultimately the citizens of Oklahoma.
In the third installment of “The REAL State of the State,” OPEA examines the governor’s blind dedication to hold education harmless in next year’s budget.
“Governor Henry said in his State of the State address that he will not tolerate and will fight any cuts to education,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “But the budgets of the programs that make up more than half of our state spending cannot be immune to scrutiny and cuts, while basic critical functions of government take the brunt of the shortfall.”
Oklahoma has 534 school districts in 77 counties, with nearly 655,000 students. Each of those 534 districts has a superintendent, with an average annual salary in the $90,000 range. Common education is the single largest expenditure in Oklahoma’s state budget*, receiving nearly $2.5 billion dollars in FY 2010.
State agencies, meanwhile, have cut in excess of 10 percent of their budgets this year and are looking at similar cuts for FY 2011. The OPEA believes balancing the state’s budget on the backs of public employees while holding education harmless is abominable.
“Our state agencies continue struggling to fund vital services to the citizens of Oklahoma,” Zearley said, “while education gets a larger piece of the pie every year. How much more important is it to educate our children than it is to protect them?
“OPEA believes whole-heartedly that education is important, but we also believe Oklahoma has a debt to our other citizens. We must protect our elderly and our veterans, we must protect citizens from dangerous criminals, and we must work to rehabilitate those with disabilities. To do all this on a shoe-string budget while education continues to garner a higher percentage of revenue is just plain wrong,” Zearley said.
Taking a long, hard look at education and making some critical decisions is something the OPEA is advising.
“Our education system is top-heavy, and in desperate need of modernization,” Zearley said. “We must look at re-vamping school districts and consolidating personnel. “The Governor has dedicated his eight-year administration to strengthen our schools. His initiatives have included a pay increase plan for teacher and support personnel, while largely ignoring public employees and the agencies that serve our fellow Oklahomans. For 35 years OPEA has been the voice of state employees, and we are saying to the governor: ‘enough is enough!’”
* Governor’s Executive Budget, p. B-50