HELENA — As one of the biggest single items in the state budget, money for public schools can’t avoid being a central issue at the Montana Legislature.
But at the 2013 session convening next month, the debate over school funds takes on new dimensions, including some “big ideas” to revamp the system, increase funding and possibly cut property taxes.
A proposed increase in state funds for the University System also is on the agenda, meant to freeze tuition for Montana college students over the next two years.
Underlying the push for more education spending is the state’s budget surplus, estimated now at about $475 million.
Education officials and others are saying the time is ripe to invest in education, which they say can be a driver of the economy.
“We always talk about how our budget reflects our values,” said Denise Juneau, a Democrat and the state superintendent of public instruction. “I know the communities all across the state value their public schools.
“(School funding) is the No. 1 jobs bill that the legislators will be discussing throughout the entire session. It really does lead to students getting good-paying jobs in the future.”
At the same time, however, leaders of the Republican majority at the Legislature are saying that as much of the budget surplus as possible should be funneled into tax reductions.
“Rather than finding creative ways to spend (the surplus), we should give it back to the people who had it in the first place,” said House Majority Leader Gordon Vance, R-Bozeman.
Yet it’s a Republican state senator, Llew Jones of Conrad, who’s behind an ambitious plan to overhaul public school funding.
His plan, crafted with the help and support of the state’s major education groups, would use oil-and-gas tax revenue to reduce local school property taxes while also increasing state funding for schools. The plan also increases lump-sum state payments to urban and rural districts, through a revised funding formula.
“What I love about it is it is a big idea,” said Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association. “Often we end up mired in what we can patch together for the next two years …
“I think it’s high time for people to take a global look at what’s been happening to property taxes for schools, and try to do something different about it.”
Juneau has her set of school-funding proposals, too, which not only increase the amounts of some existing school finance formulas, but also revise lump-sum payments to school districts and transportation funds for rural districts.
“Our (proposal) is a little bit more in chunks,” she said. “It’s not in one, humongous bill. … I think my proposal is a simpler way to understand the increases and is more fair to our districts across the state.”
Democratic Gov.-elect Steve Bullock is supporting the university tuition freeze but hasn’t thrown his weight behind a specific public-school proposal. He has, however, said he sees “funding inequities” in the current formula, and that he may support revisions to give more money to larger, urban districts.