Perhaps nowhere in Oklahoma is the irony of school funding more stark than in Catoosa Public Schools, a district of 2,100 students 15 miles east of Tulsa.
School bonds have resulted in an infusion of cash, spent on MacBook computers for all middle and high school students, a monolithic dome cafeteria that doubles as a tornado shelter, new air conditioner units, buses and a plethora of other upgrades. The school board in July approved a contract to build a $1.5 million press box with an elevator at the high school football field.
The bond-issue proceeds — Catoosa reported $5 million in fiscal year 2015 in its latest audit — go into a special fund that can only be used for remodeling or repairing buildings, not salaries or operating expenses.
So while the school district is scrimping in some ways — switching to a four-day week to save $200,000, staff reductions — it’s simultaneously investing millions in school buildings, drawing the ire of some parents.
Superintendent Rick Kibbe said the recent construction is the final stage of a long-term plan started with the first of three successive bond initiatives in 2008.
“When you build a school building, you’re building it for 30-plus years down the road,” Kibbe said. “As far as the vision goes, we need to make it an investment for the future.”
The four-day school week, on the other hand, will be re-evaluated every year, Kibbe said.
That’s little consolation to parents like Chris Buhler, who is irked by the board’s decisions to move to a four-day week and, more recently, use surplus money from land sales to pay for the press box.
The $1.5 million construction contract for the press box project was approved at a special meeting July 18. The district is using $824,000 in funds designated for the project plus nearly $673,000 from land sales.
The land fund money could have been transferred to the general fund for operating expenses. The district dipped into those funds for that purpose last year after two state revenue failures reduced allocations to schools across the state, Kibbe said.
He said the fund isn’t depleted, so the school is prepared if another state budget shortfall occurs.
Two Catoosa board members, Amy Shouse and Dean Miller, voted against the press box proposal but neither would speak with Oklahoma Watch about their decision.
Buhler, who grew up in Catoosa and whose daughters attend Catoosa schools, said he would like to see the board focus on other priorities.
“That money could have bought us another year of having a five-day school week and not having our kids in school eight hours a day,” Buhler said. “They could have even bought the teachers’ school supplies … They’re not looking at the community itself. They’re looking at what’s best for the superintendent, the way I see it.”
A total of 75 percent of voters approved the most recent bond, in 2013: $21.2 million for technology and building upgrades. The district promoted the bond issue with messages on its website such as, "No projected tax increase!" and "The dream continues!"
The projects include a $4 million cafeteria for middle and high school students that doubles as a storm shelter and at least $4 million for technology improvements. With the dome shelter, Catoosa, where seven people died in a tornado in 1993, joins some other communities adding safe rooms to schools. The bond issue also paid for a turf football field, microscopes and textbooks.
When Kibbe joined the district in 2007, a budget shortfall had just spurred the loss of 26 jobs, causing high school students to stage a walkout, according to the Tulsa World.
In April 2008, he successfully spearheaded the first of three successive school bond initiatives, generating $9.9 million for remodeling the school and purchasing new equipment and buses. A second bond in 2010 generated about $10 million.
Kibbe, who earned a $132,975 base salary as superintendent last year, ran for a state House seat this year but lost in the primary. He also ran in 2002, Oklahoma Ethics Commission records show.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.