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Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.

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Oklahoma State Department of Education

This post was updated at 12:36 CDT 

Gov. Mary Fallin’s office has offered its strongest rebuke yet to rumors that Superintendent Janet Barresi could be the state’s next secretary of education.

Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Although millions of dollars in federal aid money began pouring into Oklahoma shortly after the spring 2013 storms, not all who asked for help received it.

The Oklahoma National Guard sought $22,074 for taking Gov. Mary Fallin on a helicopter survey of the damage from the May 20 tornado, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request.

Mid-Del Public Schools had seven of its requests denied for roof repairs and other projects — the most rejected among applicants as of early June — because inspectors found the damage was unrelated to the storms.

The most dramatic rejection trend was for individuals: Of the 13,714 people who  were referred for help by FEMA under its “Individuals and Households Program,” nearly three-fourths were denied.

State and FEMA officials say the denials don’t necessarily mean FEMA was acting carelessly or callously. The agency encourages disaster victims and other groups to apply for funds even when it’s likely their requests will be rejected or scaled back because damage to their properties or belongings is mostly covered by private insurance.

Lindsay Whelchel / Oklahoma Watch

The smell of freshly cut lumber rides a south breeze to the front of the steel and concrete skeleton rising out of red clay. Construction workers and machines move about.

The new incarnation of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado, is set to open this fall. And in front on this day stand Mikki Davis and family members, there for a rally calling for the state to help pay for safe rooms in schools. Davis holds a picture of her 8-year-old son Kyle, one of the seven children who died.

“I didn’t want him taken (from life),” Davis said. “I expected to come here (on May 20) and find him looking for mama to pick him up.”

Returning to the site brings back memories and emotions. But knowing that the new school will have a safe room gives Davis some consolation.

“If my son’s life was taken so that others in the future could be saved in the future, then that makes me proud to be his mom,” Davis said.

The inclusion of safe rooms in the three schools damaged or destroyed in last year’s tornadoes is part of the FEMA disaster aid enabling the district to  rebuild. The assistance covers three-fourths of the cost of what is not paid for by insurance and donations.

Neeta Lind / Flickr Creative Commons

The Cleveland County District Attorney's Office has charged a suspect in a 32-year-old case of rape for which another man was wrongfully convicted and spent more than 13 years in prison.

The suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, 58, of Biloxi, Miss., was identified after an Oklahoma Watch inquiry last year caused the Norman Police Department to request a national DNA database check related to the 1982 rape of a University of Oklahoma student. That check, sought by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, matched Harris' DNA with DNA evidence from the rape, but authorities say it took months to verify and follow up.

Moore Medical Center after May 20, 2013 tornado
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mark Hybers

In 2007, Oklahoma was blitzed by a series of deadly storms, including an ice storm in January that engulfed most of central and eastern Oklahoma and killed 32 people.

Nearly seven years later, three of those federally declared disasters remain on active status. A handful of projects and audits have yet to be completed.

Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

The tornadoes and storms that devastated Oklahoma and killed 34 last year triggered the release of tens of millions of dollars in federal and state aid that will keep flowing for years.

To date, the federal government has approved up to $257 million in disaster assistance of various kinds to help re build damage and help victims of the winds and flooding that struck between May 18 and June 2, 2013, and to mitigate future risks.

The state has contributed an additional $10.5 million, and private insurers are paying about $1.1 billion. Charities also have pumped in aid.

The relief aid stemming from Disaster No. 4117, as it is called by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is arriving through several channels, heading ultimately to state and local agencies, contractors, businesses and individuals.

Lindsay Whelchel / Oklahoma Watch

The number of out-of-state students attending Oklahoma’s public universities and colleges has more than doubled in just over a decade as schools increasingly rely on nonresident tuition to supplement their budgets.

From 2000 to 2013, the number of nonresident undergraduate students enrolled in public colleges and universities jumped to 22,169 from 10,129, an increase of 119 percent. The nonresidents hail from all 50 states. Nearly half of them are Texans.

In-state enrollment rose by 12 percent, to 135,842, according to data obtained from the State Regents for Higher Education and analyzed by Oklahoma Watch. That rate matched state population growth.

The portion of what colleges call their “educational and general primary budgets” provided by out-of-state tuition also jumped significantly over the 13-year period. The enrollment figures do not include graduate or international students.

Images Money / Flickr

In its second round of sweeping budget cuts, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority on Tuesday will consider reducing payments to doctors and other Medicaid providers by $159 million, effective immediately.

The authority will meet in special session to vote on provider reimbursement cuts affecting up to 13,932 physicians, 2,097 advanced practice nurses, 1,561 therapists, 1,285 physician assistants, 1,277 pharmacies, 1,255 personal care providers, 1,133 dentists and several thousand other providers.

The population of Le Flore County in southeastern Oklahoma is less than a tenth of Oklahoma County’s population. Yet Le Flore has 17 school districts compared to Oklahoma County’s 15.

At Reydon Public Schools in western Oklahoma, the superintendent makes $116,000 a year, including benefits, to oversee one of the smallest districts in the state, at 124 students. That’s $936 per student, compared to $6 for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, the highest paid superintendent this year, making  $260,000.

For years, conservative legislators and others have decried what they say are high administrative costs in Oklahoma districts and schools. They say the state’s K-12 system is top-heavy and wasteful. And they point to this as a reason not to increase Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding to levels found in most other states, and to expand school-choice options such as charter schools.

Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma is one of only seven states that grew younger last year, thanks in part to an influx of 20-something oilfield workers, newly-released Census Bureau data shows.

The Sooner State also became slightly more Hispanic, as a higher birthrate within that population group more than offset a leveling-off of new arrivals from Mexico and other countries, Census officials said.

Oklahoma barely made the list of states that managed to reverse the aging process. The median age ticked down to 36.2 years on July 1, 2013, a minuscule 0.007-year reduction from a year earlier.

stethoscope
Lora Zibman / Flickr Creative Commons

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority will consider $252 million in Medicaid cutbacks at its board meeting on Thursday, including new limits on patient services, higher copays and smaller reimbursements to doctors and other medical providers.

The cutbacks, described in a draft agenda for the board’s 1 p.m. meeting (see below), were devised by leaders of the Health Care Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in response to standstill state funding and reduced federal support.

Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau

Key individuals involved in a so-called “dark-money” group supporting T.W. Shannon for U.S. Senate this year have had close ties with the campaign or its main consulting firm, according to state, federal and other public documents.

Those same individuals helped lead a separate independent political group in 2012 that had close connections to the consulting firm representing some state candidates also supported by the political group.

401(K) 2013 / Flickr Creative Commons

 Oklahoma’s corporate income tax has become the wild card of state finance, gyrating unpredictably from one year to the next as firms take advantage of tax credits and legal accounting practices.

This year’s corporate tax collections have fallen so far below expectations that the state came within a hair’s breadth of declaring a “revenue failure.” That, in turn, would have triggered across-the-board cuts in scores of state programs.

Oklahoma State Department of Education

Oklahoma became the third state in the nation Thursday to move away from the Common Core academic standards.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that repeals the controversial standards and gives Oklahoma two years to craft replacement standards in math and English. She follows South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed a similar bill May 30. Indiana dropped Common Core earlier this year.

Oklahoma City Public Schools teachers missed an average of 11 days of class in 2012-2013, matching the national average, according to a national report on teacher absenteeism released Tuesday.

The National Council on Teacher Quality looked at teacher absenteeism rates in the largest district in each of the 40 biggest metropolitan areas. The organization advocates for reforms that would improve teacher quality.

The death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections

A month after the controversial attempt to execute an Oklahoma prisoner, the state Department of Corrections has yet to release the official log detailing what went on in the days and hours leading up to the incident.

The Corrections Department did release a detailed timeline covering the 14 hours before and during the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29. But so far the department has not released a copy of the execution log, which officials are required to keep starting seven days before an execution.

Oklahoma’s execution protocol states, "Seven days prior to the execution of an offender sentenced to death, a daily log will be kept regarding every aspect of the proceedings except names of those participants who are to remain anonymous."

Wesley Fryer / Flickr Creative Commons

Changes to Oklahoma’s third grade reading retention law will not be a blank check to pass students on to fourth grade if they failed the state’s reading test.

Oklahoma House of Representatives

Gov. Mary Fallin's veto to changes in Oklahoma's third grade reading retention law was short-lived Wednesday.

Both the House and Senate voted to override the veto, a move that paves the way for parents to work with teams of teachers and reading specialists to determine if their child will advance to fourth grade if they failed the third grade reading test.

Reaction of the override quickly flooded Twitter:

Shelly Deas, principal of Lee Elementary School in Oklahoma City, shows the school’s system for tracking achievement and improvement levels of each student. Students in blue are at the highest performing level; students in red are at the lowest.
Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma could add $80 million to K-12 education funding in a budget deal announced by Gov. Mary Fallin Friday, but it’s unclear how it will impact Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding levels.

Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma is one of only seven states in the nation where revenues available for appropriation are falling below expectations despite growth in the broader economy, according to a newly released survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The conference, in its spring 2014 state budget update, attributed Oklahoma's revenue shortfall primarily to an unanticipated decline in corporate tax collections. It said the same problem is creating budget difficulties in Delaware and Tennessee.

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