Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2014 2:00 am | Updated: 8:00 pm, Thu May 15, 2014.
State Superintendent Janet Barresi has directed the state Education Department to use $6.54 million budgeted for a variety of school activities to cover a deficit in health insurance premiums for school employees.
In February, Barresi requested the money to fully fund the state-mandated health insurance for full-time staff and support personnel, commonly referred to as the flexible benefit allowance. So far, the Legislature hasn’t obliged.
Districts were notified of the situation on Wednesday, but the action would require final approval by the state Board of Education at its May 22 meeting.
“This action effectively depletes available funds left in the schools’ activities fund for the current fiscal year, but we must take care of our teachers,” Barresi said. “On top of everything else, our school districts must cover health insurance for their full-time employees. These increased costs, which are in part a consequence of Obamacare, needed to be addressed.”
State education officials say that based on the last official counts, from Jan. 1, more than 1,300 more employees are eligible for state-funded insurance since October 2012.
Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that as of April 30, $5.1 million in unencumbered funds and another $4.8 million in funds already promised to school districts was in the school activities fund.
She said Barresi is directing the department to take all $5.1 million in unencumbered funds, plus $1.4 million in funds that had already been promised to schools for alternative education programs, the Oklahoma Parents as Teachers parenting program and professional development.
“You don’t know until the last day of (the legislative) session if you will get it or not, but we just didn’t think we were going to. If we get the supplemental, we will replenish these funds,” Pemberton said.
“We have been clamoring for it. We asked in February and made another call for it in April and did not have much hope that it was going to come through.”
Redistributing the $5.1 million in unencumbered funds means less will be available to schools for bonuses for National Board Certified Teachers; Advanced Placement teacher training; test fee assistance for students; the Oklahoma Student Information System; development of a component of the new Teacher Leader Effectiveness evaluations; the REACH literacy coaches who travel throughout the state; and third-grade reading readiness, Pemberton said.
Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard said he had not been informed of Barresi’s decision before he was contacted by the Tulsa World shortly after the Education Department’s press statement was released at 4:35 p.m. Wednesday.
Ballard said he didn’t understand the move when more than a week is remaining in the legislative session.
“Deciding to use state activity funds that are already designated for other uses is not the answer. I think it is a little premature for her when the budget hasn’t even been decided,” he said.
“Funding the Flexible Benefit Allowance is strictly the responsibility of the state Legislature. She should be over there lobbying the state Legislature because we’ve got to have it funded.”
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470