Gazette opinion: Want more money for schools? Tell your legislators

2011-09-22T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Want more money for schools? Tell your legislators The Billings Gazette
September 22, 2011 12:00 am

Calling Montana public school funding “complex” is an understatement.

Various components of the funding formula usually are modified by the Legislature every two years. These include: per-pupil payments, per-pupil decrements for each additional student up to a “stop-loss” limit, per-district payments that vary by grade level, a minimum budget that each district must spend, a maximum budget that each can’t exceed, guaranteed tax base for districts with less tax base per pupil and more — many more calculations.

This complexity is a constant frustration to public education leaders and other citizens. The system is hard to explain to lawmakers and voters. Complexity makes it difficult to sort out facts when lawmakers and the governor debate funding issues and when local school boards ask voters to support a tax levy increase.

Leaders of the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association recently criticized the way that revenues from state school trust lands are used. Lance Melton and Dave Puyear wrote in a Sept. 14 guest opinion that the Department of Natural Resources is misleading Montanans by saying that new oil leases and other revenue will generate more money for schools.

In a guest opinion elsewhere on this page, DNRC Director Mary Sexton says “trust land dollars represent the cornerstone of funding for our schools.”

Both commentaries make valid points, but neither presents the full funding situation.

Here’s what Jim Standaert, the school funding expert at the Legislative Fiscal Division in Helena, said:

The current fiscal year appropriation for K-12 public schools includes $66 million from state lands.

That’s only about 10 percent of the total state appropriation.

The state general fund will provide $607 million for schools, including $215 million collected through a 95-mill statewide property levy dedicated to public education.

State land revenues are an important component of public education funding, and those revenues should go up with good stewardship. However, an increase (or decrease) in state land revenues doesn’t change overall funding for Montana’s K-12 schools.

The Legislature decides the total school appropriation — some of which must come from general state revenues because special school revenues from the dedicated property tax and the land proceeds aren’t enough to run the schools.

The K-12 appropriation is made in the biennial budget. If more revenue arrives during the interim, it doesn’t change what schools receive from the state. An example of that fact is the $81 million bonus payment the state received in 2010 for leasing coal at Otter Creek. That payment boosted the state general fund balance but didn’t change school funding.

Montanans who want to change the method or amount of school funding must appeal to their legislators and their governor. And please tell them to make the system less complex.

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