Gazette opinion: New federal ed money ought to go directly to schools

2010-08-22T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: New federal ed money ought to go directly to schools The Billings Gazette
August 22, 2010 12:00 am

The latest federal jobs bill will send tens of millions of dollars to Montana in the first six months of 2012, with the money intended to aid public K-12 schools and Medicaid, according to Sen. Max Baucus, who voted for the bill along with Sen. Jon Tester. Rep. Denny Rehberg and most Republican members of Congress voted against it.

Shoring up general fund

But according to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, it’s unlikely that Montana schools or Montana health care providers who serve Medicaid patients will see any of that money this fiscal year. Schweitzer is looking ahead to the biennium starting in July 2011 and beyond. In a telephone interview with The Billings Gazette last week, the governor made it clear that he will do what’s necessary to maintain a healthy balance in the state’s checking account.

“We will have a balanced budget and money in the bank. We are not going to raise taxes, and we are not going to cut critical services,” Schweitzer said.

The new federal aid to Montana public schools is expected to be $30.8 million.

“In the case of education, we weren’t laying off teachers. It will be plugged into the K-12 formula,” Schweitzer said of the new $30.8 million in federal aid to Montana schools. “It’ll all go to K-12 education.”

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, and Jan Cahill, a Great Falls trustee who is president-elect of MSBA, agreed that plugging the money into the state funding formula is the best option. But they want the money sent to schools this fiscal year as the federal law stipulates.

Schweitzer said the state’s options are being studied, and he’s not sure the money has to be allocated to schools by June 30.

Great Falls is Montana’s second-largest school district, with 10,500 students — about 5,000 students fewer than the largest district, Billings Public Schools. Although Great Falls voters approved a levy this spring, the school district still had to reduce its budget, Cahill said. The district is projecting a $2 million shortfall in the 2011-12 school year.

In Billings, trustees finalized this year’s budget last week. High school teaching posts were reduced through attrition; more elementary teachers won’t be hired despite growing student numbers. School leaders across the state are bracing for the possibility of cuts in state support in the next biennium.

“It would be unfortunate if the governor decided to hold it over till next year,” Cahill told The Gazette. “I would hope that he would realize that there are a lot of school districts that could use it.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Melton both suggested distributing the federal jobs money to all schools and doing it through the state’s “quality educator” funding. Juneau said she met last week with the governor’s office to discuss the federal aid and suspects that it’s likely to be an issue in the Legislature, along with the “hole” created by the 2009 budget, which used $62 million in one-time federal money to supplant general-fund money for education and cut $10 million in funds for at-risk students.

Boost per-pupil payment

Here’s a simple, fair suggestion for the $30.8 million that is designated for school support: Divide it into per-pupil payments and send the money to each local school. Do this separately from the next biennial budget because that budget needs to be based on ongoing funding sources.

According to the Office of Public Instruction, Montana has 142,082 K-12 students, so $30.8 million would be around $216 per student. Each school district would be accountable for the money, and the community would know exactly how much their school would receive.

If the governor or the Legislature doesn’t authorize a separate payment, the school “jobs” money will be stirred into the general-fund mix, just as the $86 million Otter Creek Coal bonus payment was. Yes, it helps the general fund, which supports K-12 education. But it won’t necessarily make schools any better-funded than if the $30.8 million money had never been approved by Congress.

Let local school trustees, rather than state officials, decide how the jobs money should be spent. Most of them can be expected to save it for the 2011-2012 school year because they know that future state support is uncertain.

Monday’s Gazette opinion will discuss the effects of the Medicaid rate freeze.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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