- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - When Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan told some of the nation’s other top teachers that he and his schoolteacher wife couldn’t afford to purchase a house, he heard audible gasps.

The Norman High School algebra teacher, who was one of four finalists for the national teacher of the year, said his out-of-state colleagues “were blown away” to learn how little teachers earn in Oklahoma, where the average salary of $45,317 in 2014-2015 ranked 48th among the 50 states and District of Columbia. His own base salary - with a master’s degree - is about $36,000.

Sheehan is hoping voters will give teachers an assist this November in passing State Question 779 . The proposed 1 percent sales tax increase would generate an estimated $550 million annually for public education, including a $5,000 across-the-board pay hike for teachers.

The result of a signature drive led earlier this year led by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, SQ 779 is one of three state questions brought by initiative petitions. The other two are aimed at slowing the state’s explosive prison growth: SQ 780 would reduce the criminal penalties for drug possession and low-level property crimes, and SQ 781 would invest any savings achieved from that proposal into community programs for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Four other state questions dealing with alcohol sales, farming and ranching restrictions, the death penalty and the use of public funds for religious purposes all were placed on the ballot as a result of resolutions passed by the Legislature.

Public education has borne the brunt of state revenues shrinking amid slumping oil and natural gas prices, growing tax subsidies and a gradual reduction in the state’s income tax rate over the last decade. Class sizes have grown, dozens of districts have moved to four-day school weeks and teachers are flocking to neighboring states or leaving the profession altogether.

A report released last week shows Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding level for public schools has declined nearly 27 percent since 2008, when adjusted for inflation - the deepest cuts in the nation.

While there is bipartisan support for increasing salaries for teachers, voters are wary of attempts to hike taxes, and the proposal also faces resistance from cities and towns concerned that higher sales taxes will make it more difficult to pass municipal bond issues and drive shoppers to online retailers.

A one-cent increase would bring Oklahoma’s combined state and average local sales tax rate to 9.82 percent, the highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for low-rate tax policies.

“We certainly recognize how important education is,” Weatherford Mayor Mike Brown said, “but we also want to make sure we have police protection, fire protection, water and infrastructure.”

The two other citizen-led questions are designed to address the more than 27,000 inmates packed into crumbling and outdated state prisons that are above capacity. A bipartisan group of legislators, criminal justice experts and business and faith leaders launched a signature drive to classify all drug possession and most property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors, punishable by no more than a year in county jail.

Drug offenders make up about 26 percent of the state prison population, and another 23 percent were imprisoned for other nonviolent crimes, according to the Department of Corrections’ latest annual report.

“The continued rate of growth is simply unsustainable, and we’re not seeing a positive return on investment in terms of rate of crimes,” said former House Speaker Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

The proposal is opposed by district attorneys, who say making drug possession a misdemeanor will take away leverage that prosecutors have to force criminal defendants into treatment or other types of community sentencing. Rather than face a rigorous two-year program like drug court that requires offenders to stay sober, keep a job and get treatment, those caught with drugs will simply opt to do a few months in county jail, Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said.

“This will kill drug court,” Mashburn said. “I have trouble now getting people to go to drug court rather than doing five or ten years in prison.”

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy


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