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Project Oklahoma: Is education funding crisis self-inflicted?

Project Oklahoma is an investigation into Oklahoma's educational system. The project is a joint venture by FOX 25 and KTUL.

Education in Oklahoma did not get the extra $100 million that teachers asked for during the recent walkout, but there is even more money than what was requested that has been denied to schools due to mistakes in dozens of counties in Oklahoma.

The issue is property taxes. When you pay the tax on your home, a large percentage of that money goes to your local school district. However, not everyone in Oklahoma has been paying tax on what their property is actually worth.

“On the old audit all 77 counties passed, on the new one only 28 counties passed which means in a lot of cases that the proper values were not being put on the tax rolls,” said State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

Jones is part of a committee tasked with analyzing property tax payments and finding a way to better ensure proper home values are being put on the books. During the initial work of the committee, Jones said they found in some counties properties were appraised at 50-cents on the dollar for what they were actually worth.

“What it ultimately means it is probably $250 million or $350 million more that would go into the formula to fund schools,” Jones told FOX 25.

The last performance audit of Oklahoma’s counties found only three counties are out of compliance with the current assessment protocols. One of those bottom three counties is Murray County, where County Assessor Scott Kirby says he’s working to bring property assessments into compliance.

Kirby said part of the problem in assessing properties at fair market values was there were no enough sales for the state-provided computer software to come up with what a property was worth. Add to that the problem with assessing commercial properties in a rural county where one business might be one-of-a-kind with no comparable sales.

“As far as increasing the value on them we weren't able to use the computer system in order to increase the value on those unsold properties,” Kirby said. He acknowledged it has created difficulties for funding core services. “It really causes a strain on the schools.”

However, Kirby said as new properties are built in Murray County, they are assessed at fair market value. The new constructions have helped. For example, recent wind farms have contributed enough tax money to take the Davis Public School system off of the state aid formula.

That happened because as property tax payments increase, the reliance on state aid decreases. In the case of the Davis wind farms, that is a positive. However, the state’s study found that more than two-thirds of Oklahoma counties were not assessing properties correctly and therefore those taxpayers were not paying in what their schools were entitled to. That meant more schools became more reliant on the money provided by the state.

“If you and your county are being assessed properly and you are paying your fair share it is not fair that others aren't paying their fair share as well,” Jones said. He said the effort was not to raise property taxes, but rather it was to ensure all Oklahoma property owners were treated equally.

Put another way, if you are paying your fair share in property taxes your local school district could actually lose money because another county requires more state funds due to a lack of property tax payments.

The state funding formula did get a moderate boost with the new education budget. However, even with the increase, it does not keep up with the student growth seen in the last ten years.

While the winds of change have helped set a course correction it will not be enough to bring the state back to a position where county taxes are fully funding education. Jones said because of the caps placed on the ability to raise property taxes some properties in Oklahoma will not be assessed at the actual market value in a generation.

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