By Rep. RICK WEST
Last week, a colleague and I had the privilege of meeting with Sec. Harry Birdwell over at the Commissioners of the Land Office (CLO). This is an office that has nearly $2.4 billion in its fund, and the state Constitution directs that money be used to support education.
Rep. Tom Gann and I met with Birdwell because we wanted to see if the CLO could step up and help fund a teacher pay raise. After all, we figure this is in the office’s core mission of supporting public education. Both Gann and I are grateful for the time Birdwell spent with us, and I would like to share a few things I learned during our meeting.
Birdwell gave us a great overview of how the CLO came to exist and what the agency currently oversees. Currently, the Land Office manages 1.1 million mineral acres and 750,000 surface acres. This is down from the three million CLO was granted at statehood, but it’s still, nevertheless, a lot of land. The Commissioners of the Land Office then take money from the land leases and distribute them to common schools. All common schools and 13 colleges and universities are recipients of this money.
Maybe most surprising to me was the fact that CLO does not give any money to community colleges. Birdwell explained this is because the CLO was set up before community colleges existed, but I believe it makes sense to amend these rules so community colleges can benefit as well. They are public education sources just like the others, and they should not be treated any differently.
It’s important to say Birdwell was very sympathetic to teachers and their desire for higher pay. He talked about how his wife taught students for more than 40 years, and it was clear he respected the work these dedicated Oklahomans have committed to. It was clear that Birdwell, like all of us, want to see teachers get the pay they deserve.
Rep. Gann and I went into the meeting with Birdwell asking for his opinion and direction on a teacher pay raise. We left the meeting with just that – direction on what Birdwell believes is the right path.
A couple of my fellow lawmakers and I have coauthored legislation directing the CLO to increase teacher pay with earnings from the agency’s funds. We do not intend to raid funds, as some news reports have said, nor are we taking away money school districts already receive. This distribution would be on top of funds schools already collect through the CLO. It is our desire to see Birdwell work with us to pass House Bill 8384 this legislative session, and I’ll keep you posted on any progress.
One final note: I’d like to congratulate our star athletes who competed in the annual LeFlore County basketball Tournaments. Once again, these students made me proud to represent them at the Capitol. The Howe Lady Lions have won four in a row, and the Spiro Bulldogs won in the boys’ game at the high school level. In the junior high division, the Hodgen Bulldogs won the boys’ game and the Howe Lady Lions won in the girls’. These teams may have come out on top this year, but all the basketball players did their level-best throughout the competition.
As always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments as we kick off the upcoming legislative session in a couple of weeks. You can reach me at 405-557-7413 or at [email protected]. Thanks, and God bless.
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