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Jenks, Union budgets brace for inflation impact

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Education

According to data published by AAA, the average cost of a gallon of diesel — which fuels school buses — in the Tulsa area as of Friday was $5.27, an increase of $2.31 per gallon from one year ago.

Although school will not be in session for another two months, area districts are attempting to prepare for the impact of inflation and rising fuel costs when classes resume in August.

“Our budget margins are already pretty thin,” Jenks Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Cody Way said. “There’s just not a lot of flexibility unless the state appropriates extra funds.”

Under state law, districts have to approve at least a preliminary budget before the start of the fiscal year on July 1 but can make revisions during the fiscal year as additional information becomes available, such as state or federal allocations based on updated student counts.

Public education did receive a 0.5% increase in the budget approved by state lawmakers in May. However, none of the additional $17 million allocated to public education is going to the state aid formula.

School districts are still receiving federal COVID-19 relief money, but with federal funds come federal strings. Any expenditures made with that money have to be tied directly to pandemic mitigation and recovery efforts and are subject to review by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“We know that a dollar doesn’t go near as far as it has in the past,” Way said. “It would have been nice to have an adjustment in state funding to address that.

“That’s the part that was so frustrating — the state has record revenues coming in, but we didn’t see any kind of adjustment that helps us to address our increased costs. That limits what we can do.”

Jenks Public Schools’ Board of Education approved its 2022-23 preliminary budget on Monday night, as did Union Public Schools.

Although Jenks’ budget does anticipate a $1.4 million increase in state aid due to an enrollment upswing, Way said his district will still have to be conservative with its funds in order to cover the rising costs across several areas, including food, staffing and fuel. Jenks’ projected budget includes an additional $1.8 million just for salaries compared to 2021-22.

According to data published by AAA, the average cost of a gallon of diesel in the Tulsa area as of Friday was $5.27, an increase of $2.31 per gallon from one year ago.

“Assuming these fuel costs stay up, we will have to set aside some extra money,” Union Chief Financial Officer Trish Williams said. “It will have to come from somewhere else in the budget, but we’re seeing inflation and supply chain disruptions just like every other district.”

As approved Monday night, Union’s preliminary budget includes an additional $95,000 for gasoline and $403,000 for diesel.

On top of inflation and a flat amount of funding available for state aid, districts are also having to account for a change to the funding formula.

Passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2021, House Bill 2078 requires that state aid be based on either a district’s initial current enrollment numbers or the previous year’s enrollment, whichever is largest.

Prior to the law’s enactment, school districts were able to use the highest enrollment number among three school years to determine per-pupil funding. For the 2021-22 budget, districts had the option of using their student count from 2019-20, the last pre-pandemic school year.

Although Union’s 2021-22 enrollment partially rebounded from the previous school year, Williams said her district is still expecting a reduction in state aid when allocations are announced in July, as its student count still is not completely back to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re in an interesting position at Union,” she said. “The change is going to be very hard for districts that are declining in enrollment because they don’t have the two-year lookback.

“In our case, we dropped by about 805 students so we would have experienced that loss, anyway. However, we’ve been working long and hard to make those adjustments to minimize the impact of that loss.”

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My primary beat is public education. I am a third-generation graduate of Oklahoma State University, a board member for Oklahoma SPJ and an active member of the Native American Journalists Association.

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