Oklahoma School Funding Lawsuit Looks to Right 20-Year Wrong

(Photo: Ilea Shutler, Oklahoma Watch)

(Photo: Ilea Shutler, Oklahoma Watch)

A state law in Oklahoma that would help to fund public schools was passed 23 years ago but never implemented – and now, 48 school districts are looking to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court to take action on the matter.

Filed on behalf of the school districts, the lawsuit names Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Treasurer Ken Miller and the Oklahoma Tax Commission as defendants.

“We simply believe that what has happened to our children and our taxpayers is unfair and deserves to be remedied,” said Ponca City Superintendent David Pennington, speaking on behalf of the group Oklahoma Schools for Fair Funding.

According to the lawsuit, every school district in the state has received the wrong amount of funding since 1991.  Former State Superintendent Janet Barresi confirmed this allegation in 2014, reports Keaton Fox for Fox25.

The group Oklahoma Schools for Fair Funding argued that over 150 districts in the state are receiving less in funding than they are owed.  Less than 50 of those districts are participating in the legal action, including Oklahoma City Public Schools.

The law was created in an effort to offer additional funding to districts when taxes reach a certain level.  It was the intent to have any tax money received above that threshold go to the district rather than the state.  However, the law was never implemented.

Because of the cap on property taxes, many districts in the state have not received the correct amount of funding for over 20 years.  In order to fix the problem, some districts will lose money, while others will receive additional funding.

The claim being made in the lawsuit is that taxpayers across the state paid additional taxes for 22 years that should have gone to local school districts to benefit the children there.  Instead, those tax dollars went to other school districts where a lower tax rate was paid.

The lawsuit is looking to have the defendants “fufill its statutory duty” in determining the amount of money owed between 1991 and this year “as a result of the [Department of Education's] acknowledged failure to follow the plain language of” Oklahoma law.

The issue was discovered by Ponca City superintendent Dr. David Pennington about 10 years ago when his calculations to determine how much his district should be receiving was not the same number as what they were actually getting.  However, at the time he was unable to get anyone in the government to believe his claims.  He tried once again to explain the situation in December of 2014, and it was then that Barresi publicly confirmed his suspicions, reports Andrea Eger for Tulsa World.

Pennington estimated the loss in his district to have reached $14 million, with the total amount owed to all school districts across the state believed to have reached $300 million.

“We simply believe that what has happened to our children and our taxpayers is unfair and deserves to be remedied,” Pennington said Monday at an afternoon news conference. “The diversion of funds violated state law, is unfair to the children and taxpayers in the local school districts and deserves to be remedied.”