Gazette opinion: School law change helps growing districts

2013-10-30T00:00:00Z 2013-10-30T11:07:06Z Gazette opinion: School law change helps growing districts The Billings Gazette
October 30, 2013 12:00 am

Montana school districts with growing enrollment will receive money to educate new students the same year they enroll, thanks to a new state law.

Billings K-8 district is using a provision of Senate Bill 175 to get state aid for enrollment increases of more than 40 students. Previously, districts could only seek immediate increases in per-student state aid if the increase was more than 6 percent of enrollment. With more than 11,000 students in the Billings elementary district, that meant no help unless enrollment jumped by more than 600 students in a single year.

So when the past two years brought enrollment increases of nearly 300 students per year, Billings didn’t get any funding for those students until the year after they started school.

SB175, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, changed the state funding formula to allow districts to get immediate support for additional students if the increase amounts to 4 percent of enrollment or 40 students — whichever is less.

Following the new law, Billings Public Schools estimated in May that it would see 316 additional K-8 students in the fall, according to Leo Hudetz, the district’s chief financial officer. Under the law, the district had to provide that estimate to the Office of Public Instruction in May and incorporate revenue that estimate would generate into the district budget that had to be finalized in August.

However, Hudetz said he cautioned trustees at multiple public meetings not to plan on spending the enrollment increase funds until they saw how many students actually were enrolled in October, which is when the official fall count is made. So trustees added the estimated funding to items not essential to this year’s school operations: board contingency, text books and maintenance.

Prudently, the district estimated that elementary enrollment would increase by more students than expected. If the district had estimated too low, it wouldn’t have received funding for students that exceeded the estimate. By estimating high, the district assured its schools that every student increase allowed would be counted under the law.

The October count showed an increase of 126 K-8 students. Hudetz estimates those students will generate an additional $500,000 for the K-8 schools. Without SB175, Billings would not get any of that money.

When Billings Public Schools administrators estimated an increase in K-8 student enrollment, they also estimated a decrease in high school enrollment. The high school projection proved correct, so there is no additional funding for the high schools through this provision of SB175.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed SB175 six months ago after the Legislature adjourned. We are just now seeing the ways that voluminous bill affects Montana public schools. We give it high marks for helping districts with growing student bodies.

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