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Districts and dollars: Millions spent to run small school districts

There are around 550 school districts throughout the state of Oklahoma with 77 counties. (KTUL)

There are around 550 school districts throughout the state of Oklahoma with 77 counties.

Wister, Okla. is a long way from life’s fast lane. Change is slow and choices are few, like what to eat or where to get your hair cut.

“Because there’s not another one,” laughed Crystal Harger.

Harger’s salon may be one of a kind in Wister, but the school district here is not. It’s one of 17 school districts in Le Flore County, the most of any county in Oklahoma.

There’s a lot of land in Le Flore County, but not a lot of people. There have always been numerous school districts there, but the question is can Oklahoma really afford all those districts when money is so tight?

“We have to buy copy paper, we have to buy cleaning supplies to clean the desk,” said Harger. “As a society, I think that should be government funded especially since it’s for our kids.”

Across Le Flore County, teachers and parents routinely pay for lots of things state funding doesn’t want to cover. But no one wants to lose their local school, or worse yet, leave the town to find a better one.

“See I don’t want to move because I can see my playground from my front porch,” said Laura Patrick.

It’s much the same down the road in Arkoma where Patrick and her kids live. They’re minutes away from Fort Smith and the Arkansas state line, minutes away from better funded bigger schools, but Patrick said staying is better.

“No one has to pay for school lunch or breakfast, that’s a big blessing for a lot of families,” said Patrick.

The cost of running 17 school districts in Le Flore County isn’t cheap. According to data from the Department of Education, around $1.2 million are spent on superintendent salaries that are often two or three times more than what an average family makes in Le Flore.

In Wister, the superintendent makes around $96,000. It’s a price tag that’s a lot to take in.

“I don’t know what to say. I think that’s way more than what our teachers are getting paid,” said Harger.

The Department of Education lists out all of the certified staff and their salaries. When you add it all up, that’s 17 superintendents, around 43 principals and vice principals, 133 buses and 130 buildings. This is all in a county where folks are grateful for kids to get free breakfast and lunch.

The total money spent on all that is $17 million, the price tag for the way it’s always been.

“That is why I stay here. I’ve traveled a lot and we always come back home,” said Harger.

Home is Wister, reliable and unchanging. The question is now, how long can it afford to be that way?

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