HELENA — The federal “jobs bill” passed this month by Congress allocates $30.7 million for Montana public schools — but it’s uncertain whether or how schools may get the money this year.
The Schweitzer administration will apply for the money by a Sept. 9 deadline, but “decisions are still being made” on how to spend it, said Sarah Elliott, spokeswoman for Gov. Brain Schweitzer.
Education officials said this week the money should be distributed to school districts this year, giving them the option of spending it now or carrying it forward into the 2010-2011 school year.
“It would let them use it as a tool to avoid layoffs and otherwise keep jobs that would be cut,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association. “It’s not like school districts have been doing just fine. They’ve been quietly cutting their expenses.”
Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, said Juneau prefers to distribute the money based on the number of teachers and other educational workers in each school district.
That distribution would closely mirror school enrollment. For example, Billings’ school district, with 10 percent of the state’s K-12 students, would get about 10 percent of the money.
The jobs bill also includes about $25 million in federal funds for the state Medicaid program, which pays medical bills for the poor.
The Schweitzer administration hasn’t determined how it intends to fold that money into the state budget, either.
Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt said the money can be spent on Medicaid expenses through June 2011.
Melton said if the school funds aren’t distributed this year, the $30.7 million will become part of the state’s overall general fund “and schools will not see any of that money.”
While some may argue that schools will still get the money under that scenario, it more likely would be used as a portion of general state funding allocated for schools by the 2011 Legislature, he said.
“The money will actually be spent on keeping all of government running, which confuses the public and degrades the trust needed by schools in order to remain in sync with the communities they serve,” Melton said.
Quinlan said the federal legislation requires the money to be spent on teacher and school employee “compensation and benefits.”
“I’m sure there will be a lot of discussion on whether to spend it now, or wait,” she said.