Gazette opinion: Funding reform pencils out for region’s schools

2013-11-08T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Funding reform pencils out for region’s schools The Billings Gazette
November 08, 2013 12:00 am

Montana’s new public school law didn’t make our funding system less complex, but made it more adequate and fair this year.

The law is Senate Bill 175, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. It recognized that larger school districts need bigger basic entitlements than the smallest districts. Previously, all school districts received the same state basic payment per district, regardless of how many students or how many schools they had. (The basic entitlement is one part of state school funding.)

SB175 adjusted that fixed payment incrementally upward for all elementary districts with more than 274 students and for all high school districts with more than 879 students.

The new law redistributes some oil and gas revenue that had been going to the state to school districts affected by energy development. The law also requires some energy-rich districts to share a portion of oil and gas revenue with neighboring schools.

As we noted in a recent editorial, the law sped up aid to school districts where enrollment is increasing. Instead of waiting year for increased enrollment to count in the state aid formula, now districts with significant increases can receive aid the year the children start school.

To see how these policy changes affected schools in our region, The Gazette asked the Office of Public Instruction for data. Among 13 districts reviewed, increases in state funding for this year ranged from 15 percent at Sidney elementary to less than 1 percent at Dawson County High School in Glendive and Laurel High School.

State support increased this year by 13 percent at Sidney High School, 12 percent at Glendive elementary schools, 11 percent at Bainville K-12, 8.8 percent at Bozeman elementary schools, 7.2 percent at Billings elementary schools, 6.2 percent at Bozeman High School, 5 percent at Billings high schools, 4.8 percent at Laurel elementary schools, 1.8 percent at Miles City elementary schools.

The Miles City high school district saw a 3.7 percent reduction in state support this year because of a drop in enrollment last year, according to OPI. (This year’s state support is based on how many students a district had last school year.)

The Billings high school district had slight enrollment decline, but that was offset by the boost in basic entitlement payment. The Billings elementary district got a funding boost mostly because of enrollment increases.

The state budget provided an overall inflationary increase for public schools of less than 1 percent for this year. But each district’s actual funding will depend on enrollment.

The state provides only part of the funding that law says school districts must spend to maintain equity. The rest comes from locally assessed property tax levies that Montanans see on the county tax statements mailed out recently. A formula in state law establishes both a minimum budget that each district must spend and a maximum that it is allowed to spend if local voters approve a levy.

The new law has numerous provisions that may work well or not. But so far, key funding provisions that Billings and Eastern Montana districts needed are working as public education advocates hoped.

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