In a Sept. 14 guest opinion, leaders of two Montana education associations questioned the accuracy of statements by Department of Natural Resources Conservation officials regarding how state trust revenues support K-12 education.
While it may serve their purpose to vilify a state agency in an attempt to provide more funds for schools, Montanans would be better served by working together, in a truthful and factual way, to improve our schools and our complicated school funding formula.
Trust land dollars represent the cornerstone of funding for our schools, and DNRC officials know that very well. The largest beneficiaries are the “common schools,” or K-12 students, which on average receive 90 percent of all revenues generated. In a typical year, that’s $60 million. In 2010, trust land revenues for Common Schools represented 19 percent of the state’s share of base funding for K-12 education.
Dollars that come from managing state trust lands are the first dollars dedicated to fund schools, followed by funds from the general fund. General fund dollars consist of taxes paid by all Montanans.
In other words, if the Legislature appropriates $100 to educate students in Montana and $20 is generated from state trust lands, then the other $80 must come from the general fund. Without that $20 (actually $133.3 million in 2010) from state trust lands, there are only two other options.
First, school funding would necessarily be decreased by a like amount (the students only get $80 in our example). The second option would be to raise taxes on Montanans to fund the additional $20 to ensure our students receive the full $100 necessary for their education.
It is important to remember that levels of K-12 funding are legislative decisions determined by revenue estimates and other state considerations. Trust land revenues are included in those revenue estimates and function as a rising tide, providing direct funding to education while at the same time providing options for elected officials to float other boats such as health insurance so children can go to school healthy and well, or public safety services to ensure our kids live and learn in a safe environment.
Not just K-12
While about 90 percent of trust revenues go to K-12 education, other educational institutions also receive revenues from the management of their lands. The Montana University System receives the second-largest distribution of revenues. Unlike the K-12 system, the dollars distributed to the University System are not guaranteed by the general fund. If revenues fall short on their trust lands, the Montana University System simply does without the money, but in K-12 education, the general fund and taxpayers make up the difference. Why would the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association question such a good thing?
Not only does the management of state trust lands support funding for 12 different beneficiary groups, the management of the land supports jobs and livelihoods for our loggers, construction workers, ranchers, farmers, engineers, miners, oil and gas operators, outfitters and guides. Additionally, the management of these trust lands provides access to nearly 4 million acres on which to hunt, fish, hike, camp and otherwise recreate.
So if you’re wondering whether or not revenues generated from managing state trust lands matter to education in Montana, they most certainly do. State trust lands’ revenues are an essential part of ensuring that Montana’s children receive a quality education.