Gazette opinion: State formula shortchanges big school students

2012-09-20T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: State formula shortchanges big school students The Billings Gazette
September 20, 2012 12:10 am

If all the school districts in Montana were the size of Billings Public Schools, there would be only nine districts in the whole state. But there are 317 districts, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Billings has many, many more students than the average district. Last school year, nearly 12 percent of all Montana public school students attended Billings schools for a total of 16,500 students.

Last week, Billings schools took a preliminary enrollment count and found that they have 335 more students than they did in September 2011 when the district counted 300 more than it had in September 2010.

Three hundred thirty-five is more students than the total enrollment of most Montana school districts.

However, Montana’s state school funding formula will not provide any additional money to teach those additional children this year. Funding and budget authority is based on last year’s enrollment.

State law also provides that a district will get an immediate increase in aid if its Oct. 1 enrollment is more than 6 percent higher than the previous year. For the Billings elementary district, enrollment would have to increase by more than 673 students for the district to get any immediate aid. For a district with 56 students (and many Montana districts are smaller than that), an increase of more than three students would trigger an immediate increase in state aid. This provision is an example of how state policy hinders larger districts from meeting student needs.

Montana’s school funding formula takes into consideration the challenges of running very small, rural districts. This is important because the state constitution guarantees a free basic education to all its children. Children in small towns throughout this great state deserve access to a quality public education.

So do the children in Montana’s larger communities, including Billings.

Here is how the state this year is allocating money and budget authority to its largest district based on last year’s count of 16,500 students and to a K-12 district with 87 students:

  • The basic entitlement for Billings’ 8,781 K-6 students is a total of $23,593.
  • The basic entitlement for the small district’s 40 K-6 students is exactly the same amount.
  • The small district gets $66,816 for its 16 grade 7-8 students.
  • Billings gets $66,816 for its 2,427 grade 7-8 students.
  • The small district gets $262,224 for its 31 high school students.
  • Billings gets $262,224 for its 5,278 high school students.

The disparities don’t end there. The largest component of the amount that schools are allowed to spend in their general fund is a per-pupil payment, which is decreased for each additional student after the first until the payment levels off after the 1,000th elementary student and the 800th high school student. This formula provides Billings with the least amount of funding per student because it has the most students. Per student funding for most Billings K-8 students is $200 less than small school students, and funding for most Billings high school students is $400 less than for small school students.

Talk to candidates

If Billings students were funded like small-school students, this district would have millions more per year to keep up its 30 school buildings, reduce classroom crowding, and prevent at-risk students from dropping out.

It’s important to discuss this inequity now because Montanans soon will be electing members of the 2013 Legislature. If quality public education is important to you, ask your legislative candidates what they know about school funding and what they will do make it fair for all our students.

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