Gazette opinion: Let lawmakers hear about big school challenges

2011-01-10T00:05:00Z 2011-01-13T11:14:11Z Gazette opinion: Let lawmakers hear about big school challenges The Billings Gazette
January 10, 2011 12:05 am

Last week, nearly 100 Billings citizens gathered for a briefing on Montana school funding. In about 45 minutes, School Superintendent Keith Beeman walked the group through some of the basics of the state's formula for funding K-12 public schools and explained how decisions made by the Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer could affect Billings Public Schools.

For many of the citizens attending, the discussion after Beeman's presentation was an eye-opener.

Schweitzer's budget proposal would provide slightly less money per student next year and slightly more in the second year of the biennium. However, with slight declines in student enrollment projected for Billings Public Schools, revenue will be “somewhat neutral.”

However, district expenses are projected to increase. There could be budget shortfalls of well over $1 million in the Billings K-8 district and an even larger shortfall in the high school district.

Those shortfalls would have to be closed, probably with spending cuts.

Schweitzer's budget proposal may well be the best-case scenario for public schools. Republican legislative leaders have talked about reducing state spending to less than the governor's budget proposes. Legislative fiscal staff has projected that state revenues will be much lower than what the governor's budget office projects.

State funding formula

Some folks at the Thursday forum at Castle Rock Middle School were shocked to learn that the state funding formula provides less per student to districts with more students.

The state funding formula reduces the per student funding slightly for each additional student after the first one up to the 1,000th elementary student, which is funded $200 lower than the first. Similarly, the per pupil allocation for high school students is reduced by 50 cents per student up to the 800th and all the rest are funded at $400 less than the first. As the state's largest district, Billings has the most students at the lowest funding level.

Another funding mechanism forces Billings to be frugal. The “basic entitlement” of $23,257 this year is allocated to each elementary district and $258,487 to each high school district. Billings with 26 K-8 schools and more than 10,000 students gets the same basic entitlement as a district with 10 students. Billings' high school district with nearly 5,500 students receives the same payment as the state's smallest high school district.

“We get less money per student than any other district in the state,” said Peter Gesuale, a former District 2 trustee.

The people who most need to hear the public's concerns are working in Helena. As lawmakers make decisions that will affect all Montana public schools, there will be many good people speaking up for small schools. Oftentimes, there's a perception that large schools are better able to fend for themselves.

Depending on legislators

Billings and other cities depend on their senators and representatives to speak up for the thousands of children who are educated in districts that need multiple schools, although they are funded as if all students were sitting under one roof. The children of Billings need their legislators to address the problems of crowding too many children into a classroom because the district doesn't have money to hire more teachers. The children of Billings need representatives who understand that struggling students can get lost in oversize classes in large districts, putting them at risk for dropping out.

We call on all lawmakers to do their very best for public schools in this session. We ask them to remember that students in both small and large districts have special needs. The Montana Constitution guarantees all of them a quality education and mandates the Legislature to fund it.

We commend Beeman and the school board for reaching out to communicate with the public. They will repeat the school funding forum Tuesday at the Will James Middle School library. The forum is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Child care will be provided.

Please consider attending to learn about school money and to comment to school leaders.

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