HELENA — Republicans on Friday unveiled their plan for funding public schools in Montana, saying it not only provides more state money than Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal but also allows for increased oil and gas money for schools in the future.
The GOP revealed details of the sweeping plan Friday morning in a series of amendments and votes in the House Appropriations Committee, using its majority muscle to weave the plan into House Bill 2, the major spending bill for state government.
The state funding, however, is contingent on the passage of several other bills, some of which have not even been introduced.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chief architect of the plan, said later Friday that the plan is far from a done deal, but that he’s confident Republicans can move it through the Legislature in some fashion.
“I think there is an obligation in this body ... that education is one of our best investments,” he said. “I won’t say (passing the plan) won’t be without a little pain, without some discourse, without some disagreement. But I would think we’ll get it done.”
Jones said the plan aims to simplify school funding, give schools a slight inflationary increase in state funds and budget authority, and add something called “pathways to improvement,” a program that provides extra money to rewards schools for achieving specific educational goals.
The plan also borrows a page from Schweitzer’s funding proposal, but to a lesser degree.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, had proposed taking 90 percent of oil and gas revenue that goes to one-third of Montana’s school districts, and distributing it to all schools statewide. It amounted to $76 million for the next two years.
The GOP plan instead would cap the oil and gas funds that school districts in oil and gas production areas can receive and directs the excess — about $30 million the next two years — to schools statewide. Most of the oil and gas districts are in rural northern and Eastern Montana.
Rep. Walt McNutt, R-Sidney, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and whose Eastern Montana district includes several schools with some of the largest oil and gas revenues, said Friday morning that the plan represents a “huge compromise” for districts receiving that money.
Democrats reacted cautiously to the proposal Friday, saying the amendments to enact the funding in HB2 were just drafted Friday morning.
Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the plan appears to provide adequate money for schools, but that she wants to see the actual bills.
“I just have to say that I haven’t been able to see what the entire plan is, and see what it all means for schools,” she said. “I think it brings funding up almost to the level of the governor’s budget, but it does rely on all of these transfers from different areas.”
A spokesman for Montana’s school boards, however, said they’ve been working with Jones on the plan, like what they’ve seen, and that it will provide about $12 million a year more for schools statewide through the “pathways to improvement” program.
“The way we hope it’s drafted, is that decisions on how to spend that money will be left to the local school boards and local bargaining units,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.
The plan also collapses several funds earmarked for schools into one account and the state’s general treasury, and uses $33 million of one-time transfers from various government funds to finance parts of the plan.
Jones said these changes will come up with enough money to pay for the plan the next two years as well as simplify school funding, which over the years has morphed into a complex array of earmarked funds that few people understand.
“We’re just trying to make it so that someone looking at school funding can have half a chance of understanding it,” he said.