Hundreds of school leaders say they’ll be facing a host of tough, gut-wrenching decisions to keep the lights on if lawmakers can’t find a way to prop up district budgets.

According to a survey conducted by school administrators, nearly 7 in 10 districts expect class sizes to balloon next year. Most can’t afford new textbooks. Nearly 3 in 10 are considering job cuts. Nearly all say they’ll be cutting arts, athletics, advanced coursework, summer programs or field trips.

And an increasing number are considering cutting school weeks down to four days or spending less time in the classroom.

“Tight budgets are forcing schools to cut programs that we know are good for students,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state’s School Boards Association, in a statement.

“This path isn’t sustainable if our state truly values education as the foundation of our state’s economic future and the key to lifting Oklahoma families out of poverty.”

Since 2009, lawmakers have cut nearly $1 billion from school budgets. Schools have shed about 2,050 teachers even while school enrollment has grown by 39,000 students, according to the analysis conducted by the state School Boards Association and the Cooperative Council for School Administration and made public Monday.

Student enrollment, meanwhile, is growing faster than funding, and school employee health insurance costs continue to rise.

Lawmakers are now spending about $225 less per student since 2009, Hime said.

“Schools are really struggling with the ability to be able to pay their bills and have a balanced budget by the end of the school year,” Hime said.

Cooperative Council executive director Pam Deering said superintendents understand lawmakers are in an “incredibly difficult situation and have competing priorities,” but education funding must be paramount.

“We continue to put the future of our students at risk with cuts, and we’re eager to work with legislators so schools can make decisions in the best interests of students,” she said in a statement.

Hime said schools have exhausted their savings, so every cut going forward will impact the classroom.

“We must have a long-term funding solution to increase public school funding and to increase teacher pay to a competitive level,” he said.

However, top Republican lawmakers warned that the state’s $878 million budget shortfall would make it difficult to protect K-12 schools from looming cuts.

For the past few years, lawmakers have fought to protect schools from budget reductions, but with nearly one in three dollars now spent on K-12 education, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to spare them, said Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, R-Altus.

“When they consume nearly a third of the appropriated dollar, it’s very difficult to hold them harmless and not eliminate the rest of state government,” he said.

Some sort of cut is likely, even as his colleagues continue to hash out a plan to give public school teachers raises, Schulz said.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said he would prefer that K-12 schools see no cuts given that the student population continues to grow.

“To cut common education even in a tough budget cycle like this makes that much more difficult for public education,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com

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