- Associated Press - Sunday, June 3, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Amid the ongoing legal and ballot challenges to the state’s recent tax hikes, Oklahoma districts are struggling to figure out how much compensation to offer teachers next year.

As districts hash out upcoming budgets and offer teaching contracts, questions are surfacing if it’s fiscally prudent to incorporate the Legislature’s recent average $6,100 raise given the ongoing uncertainty, said Joy Hofmeister, the state’s superintendent of public instruction.

Uncertainty is growing as a grassroots anti-tax group - Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! - is working feverishly to collect more than 40,000 signatures between now and July in an effort quash nearly $500 million in tax increases meant to provide a permanent funding stream for the first educator raises in nearly a decade.

If the group can gather enough signatures, observers have said it’s possible they could halt the new tax increases - at least until voters have a chance to decide at the ballot box in November.

Meanwhile, education advocacy groups are mounting two separate Supreme Court challenges, questioning the legitimacy of the referendum on constitutional and technical grounds, CNHI reported .

All the challenges are generating considerable confusion. Questions linger about what happens to the raises - and their funding mechanism - if the grassroots group is successful in getting the measure on November’s ballot or voters decide to quash it all together.

“It’s clear that the pay raise is in place at this moment, but it is certainly in jeopardy if the Supreme Court or the attorney general is to interpret that everything stops in terms of the collection of funds or the giving of those raises as they see it,” Hofmeister said.

With uncertainty and confusion swirling, Hofmeister said she’s sent Attorney General Mike Hunter a request to clarify 11 different issues.

“We’re at a place where every superintendent I talk to says they’re determined to provide raises, and we know that school boards are wanting to be fiscally wise with all their decisions,” Hofmeister said. “It is in the law, and we believe that teachers should be getting the pay raise they deserve. (But) there are a series of unknown aspects to this with the referendum in play. It’s a legitimate concern and question for districts.”

Hunter’s spokesman Alex Gerszewski said the attorney general is working as expeditiously as possible to respond to the request, but had no expected completion date as of May 21.

In the meantime, Hofmeister recommends that districts consult their attorneys.

Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators said her association, which represents education employees, has filed a lawsuit to stop the referendum. She contends the anti-tax group’s efforts are unconstitutional because it’s illegal to pursue a referendum that could threaten public health, safety or peace.

Still, she said everyone is in uncharted territory.

“There’s a lot of unknowns because of the loophole in the Constitution that (the anti-tax group) is utilizing,” she said.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said he’s been fielding a number of questions from his members.

“My recommendation is for them to wait until we have more information,” Hime said. “Most of the time schools don’t have their salary schedule set until well into June anyway.”

Those delays could give districts time to gauge whether either of the two legal challenges are successful. The full Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments June 11. Most observers anticipate the court will rule quickly.

But Hime said if the legal challenges fail and opponents gather enough signatures, he expects the tax hikes will be stalled until November. If that happens, he said every state agency will experience a budget cut.

And if voters kill the tax increases in November, every agency will receive a 7 percent budget cut because the revenue generated by the tax increases flows into the state’s general operating fund, he said.

“This not an education issue, this is an entire state budget issue,” he said. “(Agencies are) sharing the wealth and sharing the pain.”

Ultimately, Hime said districts may face three options.

They could choose to offer teachers no raises for another year. They could give teachers a partial raise - Hime believes districts will receive about 70 percent of the promised raise funding no matter what happens. Or, they could give teachers the Legislature’s promised raise in its entirety, but districts should to be prepared to foot the entire amount if the raises don’t come to fruition, he said.

Hime said districts just need answers.

“Our schools and school leaders need information as soon as possible because they’re trying to create new budgets for next year and contracts for teachers,” he said.

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