Fear of consolidating some of Oklahoma’s 500-plus school districts raised its anxious head Monday morning as House members took up HB 2115, by Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, which allows money from a lottery-fueled consolidation fund to be used to help districts voluntarily share a school superintendent.
Hickman assured Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw–one of four Republicans who ended up voting against the bill–that the measure is not intended to be a way to “backdoor” school consolidation, but to give districts an incentive to do something the law already allows them to do.
“The schools remain separate,” Hickman said. “Nothing else is changed.”
Assistance from the fund could not amount to more than half of the salary of the superintendent and could not last longer than three years. Dollar-amount assistance would be capped at $200,000 over three years.
Hickman said the balance in the fund, which can be used for seveal purposes, fluctuates quite a bit, ranging from about $3.5 million to $8 million during a year.
Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, said that several years ago he taught at the tiny school in the community of El Dorado, which had a total of about 150 students in grades K-12. The town was struggling then and continues to fight to keep the school open, he said.
Armes, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill, said a school is the “center of the universe” for small rural communities.
If a school is closed, he said, “You basically take the reason to live there away… It’s a real important piece in the favric of rural Oklahoma.”
When it comes to consolidation, Armes said, “I will lay in front of that train every chance I get.”
However, if costs soar so high that sharing an administrator might save a small school, Armes said, a couple of districts should be able to get together and do just that.
Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, a former school administrator himself, spoke in opposition, saying he does not want to do anything that might promote school consolidation. He said HB 2115 could be a step on a “slipper slope” in that direction. Cannaday also noted that school superintendents already wear many hats. He questioned whether allowing districts to share an administrator might stretch him or her too thinly, making it difficult to properly represent the new district.
Closing debate, Hickman stressed that the bill’s provisions are voluntary, not mandatory.
“It’s a local decision,” he said. “Here’s a little carrot to try it.”
The bill passed 90-7.