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Montana public-education advocates have been bracing for much tighter local school budgets in the next biennium. The state general fund’s revenues are projected by the legislative fiscal analyst to fall $400 million short of sustaining current programs throughout state government. Nevertheless, school supporters in Billings and Helena were shocked by the breadth and depth of K-12 budget-cutting options released last week by the Legislative Fiscal Division.

Among the ideas the division staff listed for the Legislative Finance Committee are:

• Discontinuing state funding of full-day kindergarten.

• No funding for students at risk of dropping out.

• Reducing special-education funding.

• Requiring local school districts to remit to the state funds that they have been saving for emergencies or facility improvements.

• Reducing the major state school funding mechanisms of basic entitlement (per-district payment) and average number belonging (per-pupil payment).

• Nixing inflationary increases for school operations.

• Requiring high schools with fewer than 40 students that are less than 20 miles apart to consolidate.

• Diverting taxes from stream-bed rent to the general fund, instead of putting the money in the school facilities fund.

“They’re definitely not recommendations; they’re ideas,” Legislative Fiscal Analyst Amy Carlson told The Gazette on Thursday from Helena. “Hopefully, they will start the discussion.”

Carlson said her staff prepared these options at the direction of the Legislative Finance Committee, which meets in Helena on Monday. At its March meeting, the committee “asked us to come up with some choices,” she said.

The budget-cutting options that Carlson’s staff posted last week on the committee website cover areas beyond K-12 education. Options include a 10 percent cut for the Department of Corrections, reductions in many health and human services programs, a reduction in Montana University System funding, an idea for consolidating administration of Dawson Community College and Miles Community College, draining some state trust funds into the general fund, withholding tax revenues that have been designated for city and county governments, and mandatory furloughs for state employees.

However, the K-12 “ideas” would have the greatest local impact — if lawmakers decided to adopt them.


Real costs of ‘savings’


Altogether, these ideas could save the state general fund $449 million, according to the LFD’s budget options document. But at what cost?

Some of the ideas for general-fund savings would shift costs to local property taxpayers, by automatically forcing increases in local levies to maintain minimum legal funding.

Cutting state special-education support would be a double whammy for local schools, because it would result in a decrease in federal special-education funding.

In the most recent state school funding lawsuit, courts ruled that the state needed to boost its support and to base funding on educationally relevant factors, such as the needs of large districts, the needs of small districts, the needs of special student populations and the need to maintain safe, functional facilities. In response, the Legislature agreed that K-12 biennial budget requests should start including an inflation factor, as budgets for state agencies already did. The Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer made full-day kindergarten a centerpiece of their response to improving school support, especially for children at risk of not completing a high school education. The Legislature also added a small amount of per-pupil funding for students identified as being at risk for dropping out.

If any or all of these improvement measures are eliminated, the progress of the past six years will be reversed. (The at-risk funding of $10 million statewide for the current biennium was cut by the 2009 Legislature; the LFD idea is to make that cut permanent.)

In addition to the budget-cut options listed by LFD, schools probably will see automatic reductions from what they received in this biennium because the Legislature used federal stimulus funds for part of the 2009-11 school support. The federal money was a one-time infusion that isn’t likely to be repeated. Under the state’s budget rules, that federal money isn’t even counted in building budget proposals for the biennium that starts July 1, 2011.


Educational goal


Montanans should keep in mind the goal of public education: To prepare Montana’s children for college, careers and productive citizenship. None of the LFD budget options will further that goal.

On June 6, The Gazette presented an in-depth report on efforts to transform Montana’s lowest-performing schools into models of success. Fewer than one in five students at the five lowest-performing school districts tested at proficient levels in math and reading.

In a visit to The Gazette this week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau talked about her proposals for boosting high school graduations rates statewide. A couple of years ago, OPI implemented a more rigorous, more accurate system of accounting for school dropouts. Unfortunately, the new data show Montana moving in the wrong direction. Billings public high schools reflect this trend. In the 2008-09 school year, 2,423 Montana students dropped out of grades 7-12, with the largest number leaving in 12th grade. The statewide dropout rate for high schools was 5.1 percent. According to OPI data, the Billings dropout rates that year were 7.5 percent at Senior, 3.9 percent at West and 5.6 percent at Skyview.

With 1,500 to 2,000 students in each Billings public high school, 25 to 30 or more students in classes, and hundreds of students assigned to each school counselor, how can our local schools reach out to meet the varying needs of every one of their 5,500 students?


Speak up for students


That’s the question we encourage citizens to put to the candidates who won legislative primary races last Tuesday. Ask them what they will do in the 2011 Legislature to support the schools that educate most of Montana’s children.

The drastic measures described in the LFD options should be a wake-up call for all public-education advocates. Don’t take your local public schools for granted. Speak up during this election cycle.