An increase at a time of decline -- state funding for education is in need of billions of dollars, which is exactly the amount that sits in a state managed account.
If only we could touch it.
News 9’s Justin Dougherty explores the state Land Office and the billions of dollars that are untouchable.
Each year farmers and ranchers across Oklahoma meet up for a bidding war. They square off to lease state owned land. If they win, their money goes straight to public schools.
“The school in Glencoe, my community, they benefit from that,” said rancher Clay Burtrum.
The payments that ranchers like Clay Burtrum make, go to the agency that manages the land, the Commissioners of the Land Office.
When asked how much of Clay’s money goes to education, Secretary of the Land Office Harry Birdwell said, “All of it. 100%.”
“We manage assets to support education. Period and end. That’s the sole reason we exist,” continued Birdwell.
That existence dates back to statehood.
The enabling act of 1906 gave the state the right to manage sections of land and minerals for education.
“We’re more like a business. Our charge is to get out there and make as much money as you can,” said Birdwell.
Over the past five years, Secretary Birdwell and the office have swapped some grazing land for commercial use, like the shopping center at I-40 and Kickapoo in Shawnee.
Also, the Land Office now owns the Robinson Renaissance building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Rent payments for each new commercial property go straight to schools, just like Clay's money.
“If we had done this 50 years ago, then we would be a much bigger factor in funding education. But the train is on the tracks and we’ll continue to grow,” said Birdwell.
The Land Office also manages a Sacred Trust. It now holds $2.3 billion and can't be touched.
“The easy answer is because the constitution prohibits it,” said Birdwell.
Even if the state wanted to tap into the trust, it would take an act of Congress.
Edmond Superintendent Brett Towne likes that safeguard.
"Protecting that money for the future is the whole reason that's in the constitution at all. It's to set aside that money for future generations," said Brett Towne, Superintendent of Edmond Public Schools.
Each year the trust continues to grow. While sitting on Wall Street, it generates around 80 million dollars off interest from bonds, stocks and other investments.
And that money is then used for schools.
In total, the Land Office handed out over $102 million to K-12 schools last fiscal year, the most in state history.
Given the current financial state, the Land Office may be more needed now than ever.
"If the future of Oklahoma is not dependent on the education of our children and grandchildren, then what is dependent on?" said Birdwell.
As far as how much a school receives from the Land Office, it all depends on enrollment. The more students, the more money.
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