After a long two weeks, the now-concluded teacher walkout was on everyone’s minds at the April 13 Legislative Affairs Luncheon.
Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, and Reps. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, and Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, attended the luncheon, all three having met with teacher delegations multiple times at the state Capitol during the demonstration.
Simpson said the walkouts were an opportunity to speak to teachers directly, something he saw as a positive step forward.
“I think we’ve developed a good dialogue between us and educators,” Simpson said. “In the past I’ve probably not developed that dialogue, and I should have. That’s something I’m at fault for, but I think these past two weeks have opened up avenues so we can continue this discussion.”
Ownbey said the visits were constructive as well. He said being able to explain the long odds House Bill 1010xx faced helped teachers understand the situation more fully.
“For raising revenues, we’re the toughest state in the country,” Ownbey said. “We went through four sessions to get that done.”
Ownbey discussed the challenge presented by state question 640, the 75 percent rule that makes it difficult for the state Legislature to pass revenue bills.
“We can’t deal with ‘wants’ in the legislature,” Ownbey said. “We have to deal more from a perspective of what we can get done.”
He said pending legislation concerning tax credits could raise additional revenue for education as well.
Hardin said meeting with large groups all at once could be disorienting, but the meetings were still worthwhile.
“We’ve all asked the teachers, ‘let’s not quit, let’s keep going with this dialogue now,’” Hardin said. “Let’s set up meetings and talk about the issues.”
During the Q and A portion of the luncheon, an audience member asked about lottery money originally intended for education funding, asking where it went and if it had been mishandled.
“The lottery money has never lived up to what they advertised it would be,” Simpson said. “The highest year was 2008, when it was about $75 million. That gets divided between common ed, higher ed and career tech.”
Several questions from the audience inquired about state agency audits. Ownbey said most agencies audit themselves, but there has been some discussion about forming a legislative office in charge of auditing agencies.
“We need an outside auditing firm to come in and do that,” Ownbey said. “Some of these, by the way, are very expensive if done correctly, but they need to be done, even if it’s only so many a year.”
Simpson said each state agency is audited once a year, but they’re not in-depth forensic audits, just financial audits. Operational audits are done by the state auditor.
Another participant asked about school and administrative consolidation. An informal, by-show-of-hands audience poll showed about half of those in attendance would be in favor of school consolidation in some form.
“I do believe there’s an awful lot of waste,” Ownbey said. “Maybe not as much as you’re hearing. Some of those schools that are very small… that seems, to me, like we need to be combining those.”
Hardin said consolidation could work, but only if implemented by educators who fully understand the issue.
“If it was done it in the right way it could help,” Hardin said. “The Legislature probably doesn’t know how to do it correctly, we’d need to get the teachers involved.”
Simpson said the issue was so divisive and politically-charged that for consolidation to work, it couldn’t be handled by the Legislature.
“It would only be solved if we get it out of the political arena,” Simpson said.