School boards critique Schweitzer budget plan

Group calls plan to shift oil and gas money 'unacceptable'
2010-11-30T17:00:00Z 2010-12-01T16:47:10Z School boards critique Schweitzer budget plan

By MIKE DENNISON

Gazette State Bureau

The Billings Gazette
November 30, 2010 5:00 pm  • 

HELENA — The group representing Montana school districts says Gov. Brian Schweitzer's funding plan for schools comes close to meeting their hopes for the next two years — but that his proposed transfer of oil-and-gas revenues to finance the plan is “unacceptable.”

They also note while Schweitzer calls his funding proposal a sizeable increase in state money for schools, it actually cuts entitlement payments next year that are the basis of most schools' general-fund budget.

“In fact, when you include the one-time (federal) money that schools will lose this biennium, school districts will have less in the coming biennium,” the Montana School Boards Association (MSBA) said in a summary distributed to its members within the past week.

Still, officials in some of the state's largest school districts say they're encouraged by Schweitzer's stated desire to maintain and increase state funding for public schools.

Supportive of education

“He's extremely supportive of where education needs to be and where it needs to go,” said Alex Apostle, superintendent of schools in Missoula. “I think his initial take on the budget is very positive.”

Schweitzer, a Democrat, unveiled his school-funding plan Nov. 15, when he submitted his proposed budget for the 2012-13 biennium.

The proposal, which will be considered by the 2011 Legislature, increases state funding by about $40 million over the two-year period. However, most of that increase is in fiscal 2013.

In fiscal 2012, which begins next school year, districts would see a slight decrease in basic per-district and per-student payments from the state. The decline also limits many districts' overall budget authority and their ability to ask local taxpayers to bolster district budgets.

The only increased state money for schools in Schweitzer's budget next year is for special education and at-risk students, about $6 million out of a $736 million pie.

Schweitzer's proposed oil-and-gas mechanism to fund $76 million of the $1.4 billion in state funds for schools over two years is causing the most concern, as the school boards' group said it amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Statewide distribution

Schweitzer is proposing to take $76 million of oil-and-gas tax revenue that currently goes to several dozen schools in petroleum-producing regions and distribute it to all schools statewide.

Lance Melton, executive director of MSBA, said many school districts now getting this money would have to dramatically raise local property taxes to replace the loss of those funds.

The governor's plan essentially takes money from the state treasury that had been used for schools, spends it on other programs, and replaces it with the oil-and-gas money that had been going to some schools, he said.

“Our members have passed a resolution specifically opposing this move and there has to be a more transparent, direct way of prioritizing the funding of schools than what has been proposed so far,” Melton said.

Dan Villa, the governor's education policy adviser, said school districts with oil-and-gas revenue have received more than they expected the past two years, and that some have sizeable reserves that could help offset the need to raise property taxes to replace that money.

Melton said most school reserve funds have legal restrictions on how they can be spent, and that “unencumbered” funds in reserves are relatively small.

“We're supportive of the governor's overall proposal,” he said, “but just not the way that he wants to fund it.”

Bruce Messinger, superintendent of schools in Helena, said schools benefited from a fair amount of federal stimulus money the past two years, and realized it would come to an end by next year.

While it may be disappointing that the governor's proposal doesn't fill the entire gap created by the loss of that money next year, it does increase state funds in 2013 and makes a good effort to maintain education funding in difficult economic times, he said — if it's fully funded.

“I do applaud his effort to make education a priority for our state,” Messinger said.

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