Some scary stuff is going around in the news, lately. Stories of “ghost students” in Oklahoma Public Schools. As superintendent, I do not want parents to be concerned about phantoms haunting our hallways, so I feel compelled to address this important issue. Yes, I realize that I wrote about Bigfoot and snipe recently, so my credibility is certainly in question, but I stand by my “reality” cable tv sources. In fact, I would like to see a mash-up where Tango from Ghost Hunters and Bobo from Finding Bigfoot search together for Sasquatch’s ghost . . . only to find the troll-haired guy from Ancient Aliens poaching snipe (which are, of course, extra-terrestrials). Now, that’s a show!
Nevertheless, excluding the empty section of the old Duncan Jr. High, I can reassure parents that we do not have any disembodied ghouls in school. The “ghost students” referred to recently in the news are real students. State officials know exactly where they are, but Oklahoma’s school funding formula allows schools to operate based on their highest enrollment in the past three years, which ensures at least two-years of funding stability in schools. This stability is needed most in schools with high transience rates, in rural districts, and in schools heavily reliant on single industries (like Duncan). Schools are prohibited from saving excess funds, so this practice provides schools with reasonable assurance of fiscal consistency.
Prior to the funding formula, layoffs of educators and school closures were much more common. The economy in places like Duncan can fluctuate wildly based simply on gas and oil prices. Our enrollment dropped by about three hundred students this year, so without two-years of fiscal stability provided by the formula, we would have certainly fired several staff after school started. Likewise, a single tax protest or business closure can drastically cut local revenue in school districts. Many districts and schools also experience high transiency rates, which makes it difficult to project staffing needs year-to-year. Schools with military-dependent children can face all these challenges simultaneously. For these and many other reasons, past state leaders wisely established “the formula” some thirty years ago. Oklahoma educators do not serve soulless specters; we serve real students with real needs that cannot be predicted on a dime. Two-years of funding stability ensures some consistency for students in the most disadvantaged communities.
The current formula is a practical way to provide districts and communities with some fiscal consistency during wild economic swings. No system is perfect, but the issue of “ghost students” is not as ethereal as it seems. On the other hand, many districts trying to fill positions are wrestling with the ghosts of educators who have left the profession. Further employment instability will not help lure more into education. Personnel expenses often comprise over 90% of a schools budget, so layoffs are the only way to balance a budget shortfall. Without a two-year warning, schools would routinely start the school year by firing people based on the number of kids who show up. The current formula gives schools and communities two years to adjust and prepare without destabilizing schools, classrooms, and communities – especially in our poorest urban and rural districts. Without funding consistency, temporary economic downturns or enrollment shifts will close schools that could have otherwise survived. This happened with much more regularity prior to the formula.
Unfortunately, schools are easy to close and difficult to reopen. I have never seen a “ghost student,” but I can certainly identify ghost towns and neighborhoods across the state. We have seen too many spooked, knee-jerk reactions over the last year, so I beg state leaders to carefully study the economic and educational consequences. We cannot simplify this infinitely complex issue with catchphrases or scary labels. And if careful study and rational discourse fail, we can always call Bobo, Tango, and the troll-haired guy to do a thorough investigation. It only seems logical at this point in history.