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9 Investigates: Top Heavy Education

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

According to a recent analysis of education spending, Oklahoma ranks 48th in the nation in the amount of money it spends per pupil.

That same data, however, compiled by Oklahoma Watch, show Oklahoma is much higher -- fifth, in fact -- in the percentage of education dollars spent on administration.

As a result, some lawmakers said they are convinced that a logical way to get more money into classrooms, and improve the state's per-pupil funding rank, is to cut administration.

"If the goal is to educate our children and not pay bureaucrats," said Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, "then we need to get more money from the bureaucrats into the classroom."

Sen. Loveless said he knows what he wants to do will be criticized by some Oklahomans, but he said the state's number of school districts, 530, is just too high. He said other states of similar size have far fewer districts, and thus far less administrative overhead.

"We have to do the best thing, regardless of turf wars or regardless of little kingdoms of superintendents," said Sen. Loveless.

Superintendent Robert Trammell runs a school district that covers about 500 square miles.

"Our district is 30, 40 miles long, 15 wide," said a contemplative Trammell.

This is not a ‘kingdom,' but the Snyder Public School district in Kiowa County, and Trammell, who puts in dozens of miles a day traveling the sprawling district, said he's been down this consolidation road before.

"Over the years, we have consolidated, and closed and scraped," stated Trammell, "and show me that we've saved a dollar somewhere, because we're still 48th."

Trammell said districts like his have no choice but to be efficient; they have to in order to survive.

He said what many people in urban and suburban parts of the state don't understand is just how many hats administrators in rural districts wear.

"I've been a custodian for months on end, I drive a bus when I'm called on, [sub] in the classroom," said Trammell.

What's more, Trammell said he and other administrators are viewed as an important part of the local community.

"There's a lot of pride in these rural communities," Trammell commented.

Sen. Loveless said he expects this reaction from smaller districts, but insisted it's unwarranted.

"This is not an assault on rural schools at all," said Loveless.

Senator Loveless said the goal is to help rural schools, and all schools.

Under his bill (SB 15), when the superintendent of a district with of 250 or fewer students retires, that district's administrative services would be combined with those of a neighboring district.

"If we combine the two and use that savings towards education," said Loveless, "it would go a long way towards helping make our education system better." 

A 2012 Friedman Foundation study concluded Oklahoma schools had almost 6,000 more administrative positions than needed, and that the money saved by eliminating those positions would be enough to give every teacher a nearly-$5,000 raise.

Loveless said he believes his plan could save the state $30 to $40 million a year.

"So imagine $30 million in teacher pay raises, or $30 million in smart boards, or $30 million in anything else we can think of in education," Loveless said.

But some advocacy groups questioned how Loveless and other groups arrive at such projections, and said they should be taken with a grain of salt.

"I don't believe there's a significant amount of savings in consolidation," said Shawn Himes, Executive Director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Himes said it's important to understand that school districts are consolidating on their own, without being forced to do so.

In fact, 16 districts have consolidated (two) or been annexed (14) in the last five years. Himes said he believes this is something that should be decided by local stakeholders, not by a law that said you "shall" consolidate.

"Instead of saying 'shall,' we should keep it the way it is," said Himes, "allow for [districts to consolidate], give them incentives and other things that help them be efficient."

Trammell said he believes that getting rid of superintendents won't save money because others will have to pick up the slack, and will have to be paid more. He said Loveless's plan won't save anything, but will exact a major toll, in terms of lost local control.

"I just don't see the advantage that some do," Trammell concluded.

Senator Loveless held an interim study on this issue last November. Because it was clear that there was limited support for his proposal, he introduced a second bill that would create a task force to study the issue. That bill, SB 18, passed out of the Senate Education Committee last week.

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