GOP school funding bill has support, opposition — and uncertainty

2011-03-14T19:47:00Z 2011-03-15T00:21:57Z GOP school funding bill has support, opposition — and uncertainty

By MIKE DENNISON

Gazette State Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

HELENA — School officials offered dramatically different takes on Monday on legislative Republicans’ complex proposal to increase state money for public schools the next two years, at the bill’s first public hearing before a legislative committee.

Supporters, including trustees and superintendents from urban and rural districts across the state, said Senate Bill 403 offers schools a good dose of needed state funding and treats oil-and-gas school districts fairly.

“They’ve crafted a solution, without increasing taxes that would be devastating to oil-and-gas school districts,” said Wade Johnson, superintendent of schools in Cut Bank. “It’s a great example of leaders from across the education community finding a solution that benefits students, without adversely affecting taxpayers.”

But opponents, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, criticized it on many fronts, calling it a needless rewrite of school-funding formulas and a tax-increaser for many districts and taxpayers.

“This takes an already complicated funding system and makes it more so,” Juneau said. “So, I ask, what is being fixed? ... This bill is not ready for prime time.”

School officials flocked to Helena to testify before the Senate Education Committee on SB403, which may face action later this week, once panel members get more information on its fiscal impact.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the sponsor of the bill, said he expects to bring amendments to deal with “technical issues” or other fiscal issues in the 49-page bill.

Meanwhile, in the Montana House, majority Republican members weren’t ready to assume that SB403 would pass in its current form — or at all.

The House voted 59-40 to amend a major spending bill to remove public-school money that would be spent if SB403 passes. The vote removed about $28 million from House Bill 2.

“I think this is something we need to do at this time,” said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, who offered the amendment. “We need to see a bill (in the House) to judge our support for that. At this time, we don’t have that right now.”

SB403, introduced late last week, would increase state funding for public schools the next two years slightly more than proposed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and redistribute oil-and-gas funds like the governor’s proposal — but accomplishes its goals in a much different fashion.

Highlights of the bill include:

• A 1.9 percent increase in basic state aid this year and a 1.53 percent increase next year.

• Capping the amount of oil-and-gas production taxes that go to school districts in petroleum-producing areas, and redistributing some of that money statewide.

• Creation of a new “pathways to excellence” program that will give schools more money and allow them to spend it based on how well their students perform.

• Changes that will require some districts with low local property taxes to increase those taxes, but by no more than 15 mills.

Lobbyists for oil and gas, PPL Montana and the other owners of electric power plants in Colstrip and other business interests testified against SB403, saying it probably will increase their property taxes because of the changes that will increase mills in low-tax areas.

Connie Wardell, a member of the Billings School District 2 board, also said the new “pathways” program would create “another system of accountability” that isn’t needed.

And some schools from oil-and-gas counties said the bill still treats them unfairly, limiting some of their oil-and-gas revenue while forcing property-tax increases locally.

Supporters said SB403 takes only 10 percent of the oil-and-gas funds from school districts that receive it now, as opposed to the 90 percent proposed by the governor.

But, most of all, supporters said SB403 provides a desperately needed increase in state funds for schools that already are hurting.

Kirk Miller, superintendent of schools in Bozeman, said his district will still be $1.4 million short of funds if the bill passes — but that, without it, the shortfall will be more than $2 million.

“I’m just asking you to fund our schools,” he said.

Jones also said that, while the bill will increase local school property taxes in some districts, those districts now pay zero or very few mills.

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