A statewide coalition of public education advocates won bipartisan support for comprehensive education funding reform when the Montana Senate voted 32-17 on Saturday to send Senate Bill 175 to the House.
“This bill is a product of trustees, teachers, superintendents, small businesses, parents, people on reservations, off reservations,” SB175 sponsor Llew Jones told the Senate Friday. “Hundreds of people from across the state worked on it.”
Jones, R-Conrad, told senators some of the stories he has heard in two years of developing this legislation: A school in Savage has no ceiling, but it has new students. The Culbertson school has seen tremendous turnover: 60 new students this year, and 40 leaving during the year, yet it maintains a 100 percent graduation rate.
Sidney has seen “an explosion of student enrollment.” Columbia Falls is losing students, and funding. Kalispell and Billings struggle with high local school taxes. Billings is trying to reduce its dropout rate, which exceeds the state average.
Wherever he went to talk about public education, Jones said, everyone was focused on improving student achievement.
“SB175 is about bringing the schools together,” Jones told The Gazette last week. “We’re trying to empower parents, teachers and trustees.”
In addition to supporting schools, the bill would provide some property tax relief by reducing local school levies.
The result of the proposed increased school funding, redirecting some oil and gas revenues from the state to oil production area schools, and providing some local property tax relief would be an increase in general fund expenditures of $57 million in fiscal 2014 and $60 million in 2015.
SB175 has a tough road ahead in the House and appropriations committees. Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed a less sweeping and less costly education bill, introduced by Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings. Driscoll joined all Senate Democrats and more than a dozen Republicans in supporting SB175.
Opponents, led by Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, primarily object to the bill’s ongoing costs.
The bill addresses urgent problems for Montana students. It would:
- Redistribute oil and natural gas production tax revenue. The district where drilling takes place could keep oil and gas revenue amounting to 130 percent of its general fund. The excess would be shared with adjoining districts. If there was still excess, it would be shared with other districts in the county, and then with districts in adjoining counties.
- Help Billings and other large districts deal with enrollment increases by changing the law that generally bars large school districts from getting money for increased enrollment until the year after the new students enrolled. SB175 would provide funding in the same year that new students start school – if the district’s enrollment increased by 4 percent or by 25 students, which ever is less. Billings gained about 300 elementary students this year, but received no funding for them.
- Fairness in the basic component of education funding. Present law provides the same amount of basic funding to each elementary and high school district, regardless of how many students it has. SB175 would increase that funding for all schools and provide increments of additional funding for districts that have more than 250 elementary students or more than 800 high school students.
Billings has been unable to afford to hire enough teachers for its growing elementary enrollment and has been cutting high school staff and courses because of budget constraints. Funding changes in SB175 would help provide the resources needed to educate the district’s nearly 16,000 students.
We call on members of the House to consider SB175 with open minds and an eye toward improving student success in our public schools. We call on these lawmakers to support the bill to provide fair funding to all, and to equitably distribute oil and gas revenues. Montana’s 141,697 K-12 public school students deserve action this session.