OWASSO, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma's state superintendent said a ballot measure to increase taxes to fund teacher pay increases isn't ideal, but she'll support it to address the state's shrinking pool of educators.
Speaking Wednesday in Owasso, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the Legislature should have increased teacher salaries last session, rather than leaving it to voters. The proposal, which is on the November ballot, calls for a 1 percent sales tax increase to fund higher education and $5,000 pay increases for teachers.
"We've got to have a $5,000 pay increase," she said. "The 300,000 Oklahoma petition-signers have made their will known. We will now see what happens with the voters when November comes around. If that doesn't pass, I don't stop advocating for that (teacher pay raise)."
Of the ballot measure, Hofmeister said, "Is that ideal? I don't think it's ideal. I think it's long overdue. And it is with regret that we have not been able to do that sooner."
Gov. Mary Fallin had proposed a special session to use a $140 million surplus to fund teacher pay increases as an alternative to the ballot measure, but she said last week that she couldn't reach an agreement with Republican lawmakers on a strategy to do so.
The tax hike would give Oklahoma the highest average combined state and local sales tax rate in the nation at 9.82 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for broad-based, low-rate tax policies.
Also Wednesday, Hofmeister said that school boards in 139 school districts — out of Oklahoma's 515 total — have voted to switch to four-day school weeks. Although the four-day week aims to save schools money on utilities and other operating costs, Hofmeister said the teacher shortage is a factor as well.
"The difficulty is with the teacher shortage and (employing) someone with low, uncompetitive pay, it gives teachers a whole day to work that second job," she said. "Schools are saying, 'I don't want to do it (switch to four-day weeks) but I am losing teachers to another district that's doing it.'"