The biggest Montana school funding changes in decades are headed for Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.
Senate Bill 175 would provide modest inflationary budget increases (less than 1 percent next year) for all schools while sharing oil and gas revenues among more oil-impacted districts, allocate lump-sum funding partially on the basis of student enrollment, give local school districts greater flexibility in how they spend local tax dollars, and increase local discretion for structuring class time.
In Eastern Montana, SB175 will take oil and gas revenues that for the past two years went to the state general fund and direct the money to school districts that are affected by oil and gas development, but don’t have wells producing much revenue in their district. Among districts expected to benefit are schools in Sidney, Ekalaka, Miles City, Terry, Brockton, Richey, Terry, Circle, Wolf Point and Poplar, according to Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.
SB175 doesn’t change the amount of oil and natural gas revenue going to the districts where the revenue is generated. They will still be able to keep up an annual amount equal to 130 percent of their maximum general fund budgets.
Revenues above that level were diverted to the state general fund for the past two years — about $13 million a year. Starting July 1 that money will instead be shared first with other districts in a unified school district, then with other districts in the county, then with districts in neighboring counties.
Large, growing school districts, like Billings would get some relief in SB175. According to preliminary projections from the Office of Public Instruction, Billings Public Schools would have an increase of $1.2 million next year in the K-8 minimum budget and $800,000 in the high school district if SB175 becomes law.
When Billings saw an increased enrollment of 300 students this year, it received zero extra dollars to teach them. Under SB175, the district would have received funding for 260 of those new students.
SB175 and the inflationary adjustment in House Bill 2 (the main state budget bill) add up to $72.5 million for public K-12 education for the biennium. That’s substantially less than the original price tag for SB175, which was $120 million.
“It accomplishes every single principle in the introduced version of the bill,” Melton said of the amended version that will be delivered to Bullock.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, sponsored the bill after spending nearly two years working on it with people from all over Montana. Jones deserves an A-plus for his efforts to upgrade Montana’s school funding formula.
Other lawmakers (see box) also get high marks for their valiant support of this legislation, which passed despite opposition from majority leadership in both the Senate and House.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, skillfully moved floor amendments that restored SB175 after it was gutted in House Education Committee.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s office “has been in talks all session with Sen. Jones,” Bullock spokesman Kevin O’Brien told The Gazette on Wednesday. O’Brien declined to say whether the governor will sign SB175, but noted that a balanced budget is Bullock’s No. 1 priority.
SB175 will allow school districts in Eastern Montana to better cope with increased student enrollment from the region’s oil boom. SB175 will allow Billings schools to move closer to meeting the needs of its growing student body and closer to fulfilling state accreditation requirements. SB175 will benefit schools all over Montana by providing modest increases in state funding and substantial new flexibility for locally elected school boards to decide how to spend their budgets and set attendance requirements.
We thank the lawmakers who supported public education this session and ask Bullock to put his signature on SB175 — for the sake of Montana and its children.