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Oklahoma Districts Refile Lawsuit Over Decades-Long Property Tax Allocation Mistake

School buses are parked at the Oklahoma City Public Schools Operations Center in Oklahoma City.
Brent Fuchs
The Journal Record
School buses are parked at the Oklahoma City Public Schools Operations Center in Oklahoma City.

For 22 years, the state miscalculated how much property tax should go back to local school districts. That means hundreds of campuses lost money over that time period, while the rest got more than they deserved.

Some Oklahoma school districts are now going after millions of dollars they say were applied the wrong way, The Journal Record’s Dale Denwalt reports:

In a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court on Wednesday, four districts argue that for two decades, the State Department of Education incorrectly calculated ad valorem tax disbursements. The state’s high court recently turned down the schools’ request that it should be the first and only venue to hear the case, so the plaintiffs went to district court. “That’s not a surprise,” said David Pennington, superintendent at Ponca City Public Schools. “We always knew that might happen; we hoped it wouldn’t.” Pennington was the first to discover the error. After years of asking the state to investigate, he said, former State Superintendent Janet Barresi acknowledged the problem in 2014 and changed how the agency disburses ad valorem taxes.

If a county assesses a property at more than 11 percent, anything over that should automatically be given to the local school. But the State Department of Education put some of that cash through the statewide funding formula, which divides money among all public schools.

Pennington estimated that Oklahoma City Public Schools lost $13.2 million in the final 10 years of the error because the money was improperly put through the statewide funding formula. Ponca City lost $7.5 million during that same time, he said. In all, there are about 140 school districts that lost money over that time. Tulsa Public Schools, Pennington said, was an advantaged district that got more money than it should have. “I’ve probably had nothing else that people in my community have stopped and asked me about as much as this one issue,” he said. “As individuals, if you make a mistake on your taxes the government’s going to come back and get the money you owe them.”

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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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