SD2, Juneau focus legislative messages on school funding inequalities

2012-12-10T14:04:00Z 2012-12-11T07:26:04Z SD2, Juneau focus legislative messages on school funding inequalitiesBy ROB ROGERS The Billings Gazette

Nothing like the looming legislative session to focus the mind. 

School District 2 is preparing for the 2013 Montana Legislative session and has begun lobbying for more equitable funding. 

"What we will be focusing on is entitlement," said SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck. 

Bouck presented the district's case to a group of area legislators Monday morning during a special community meeting sponsored by Montana State University Billings. 

The state's basic entitlement is a small block of funding that each school district in the state receives each school year. Whether a district comprises one school or 29 schools — like SD2 — each receives the same lump sum, about $350,000. 

SD2 officials support legislation that would change the model so that each school in the state, rather than each district, receives the basic entitlement lump sum of $350,000.

Denise Juneau, state superintendent of schools, calls it the brick model. Rather than give one brick to each school district, the state should give a brick to each school. 

"Billings should get (29) bricks," she said. 

Juneau backs similar legislation. As head of the state Office of Public Instruction, Juneau has leaned on state Sen. Robyn Driscoll to introduce the bill in January. 

Juneau met with SD2 trustees, staffers and community members during a noon gathering in downtown Billings. 

"School funding is already complex enough," she told the group. This change to basic entitlements would make the system just a little simpler, she said.

In his meeting with legislators Monday, Bouck stressed several times that his fight for basic entitlement funding isn't an issue of urban schools vs. rural schools.

The state has a mandate to adequately fund its rural schools, many of which need specialized funding, he said. 

However, the state also has a mandate to adequately fund urban schools. Right now, he said, that's not happening. 

By delivering basic entitlements on a per-school basis, rural school districts won't lose any of their current funding and districts with multiple schools would receive a little more, he said. 

The change would send an additional $1.5 million in desperately needed money to SD2, Bouck said. 

SD2 elementary classrooms are overcrowded, and the district lacks the funds to hire more teachers and build more classrooms. 

Much of the overcrowding has come from a recent growth spurt. SD2 has grown by roughly 300 students a year for the past couple of years. 

Under state law, school districts that experience sudden, rapid growth are eligible for special emergency funding. However, student growth must  exceed 6 percent in the school year for that funding to kick in.

SD2 and Juneau's office hope to amend that provision as well. To hit the 6 percent mark, SD2 would have to grow by 960 students. 

Instead, SD2 officials are lobbying for legislators to look at the 6 percent rule and find ways to make it more equitible for large school districts.

OPI backs legislation that would amend the requirement to be 6 percent growth or an increase of 45 students in a school year.

"I think we're getting somewhere," said Teresa Stroebe, SD2 board chairwoman. 

Stroebe and Juneau have seen bipartisan support for some kind of change to the basic entitlement rule, and both are optimistic that an agreement can be worked out. 

"The key that's working for us is that everyone is talking," Stroebe said.

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