Broad education coalition kicks off push for sweeping K-12 school-funding bill

2013-01-22T16:07:00Z 2013-01-23T08:50:05Z Broad education coalition kicks off push for sweeping K-12 school-funding billBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
January 22, 2013 4:07 pm  • 

HELENA — A broad coalition of school groups pitched its sweeping public-school funding plan Tuesday, saying it offers a rare chance to boost money for schools, cut property taxes and link both to natural-resource development in Montana.

“The education community has never been together on a school-funding bill the way it is today,” said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing teachers and other public employees. “I hope that means something to legislators gathered (here) and to Montanans.”

The plan, contained in a bill to be introduced this week, would increase state funding for public schools by almost $80 million over the next two years while cutting local school property taxes by $24 million, starting the 2014 school year.

It will use money from oil-and-gas production to finance the tax cuts, which supporters said will increase if oil-and-gas tax revenue goes up — but won’t drop below $8 million a year, even if those revenues plummet.

Small and large school districts alike will benefit from the funding changes, and revenue from oil-and-gas taxes will be distributed more evenly among the school districts affected by development, bill supporters said.

For example, in Billings — Montana’s largest school district and one that has seen growth related to oil-and-gas development in Eastern Montana — the bill would increase the district’s state entitlement payment from about $350,000 to $2.3 million. Other large urban districts would see similar increases, although not as big.

Feaver and representatives of school boards, school administrators, rural schools, school business officers and others spoke about the bill at a Capitol meeting room, presenting it to an audience that included nearly 50 state lawmakers.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who will sponsor the bill, said he had worked on the plan with education officials around the state for the past 21 months.

“Not everybody in the room likes everything in the bill,” he said Tuesday. “But they overcame their personal resistance … in order to work together.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau also supports the plan. Gov. Steve Bullock hasn’t taken a position on the plan but said through a spokeswoman that he “looks forward to working with the Legislature as this (plan) and other education funding measures begin to work their way through the legislative process.”

Bullock has proposed a $35 million increase in state funding for public schools over the next two years.

Dave Puyear of the Montana Rural Education Association urged lawmakers in the audience to “just give (this bill) a shot,” and said if it gets amended heavily, its support may crumble.

The main components of the bill include:

-- Increasing the lump sum basic entitlement the state pays to each school district. Small districts would get a set increase, regardless of their size, and the increase would go up proportionately with the district’s number of students.

-- An across-the-board reduction in local property taxes that support a school district’s general fund. The decrease would be $24 million statewide, starting in the 2014 school year. The reductions would go to all property taxpayers, including homeowners and businesses.

-- The inflationary increase in state per-student payments to school districts — an increase already in state law.

-- A state payment of $20 per student for new data systems designed to help teachers and school officials track and adjust academic achievement for individual students.

“In this bill, we’re trying to put data in the hands of educators, parents and administrators in time to make a difference,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.

-- About $16 million in excess oil and gas revenue that is now transferred from selected school districts to the state treasury would be distributed to other school districts affected by oil and gas development.

The measure also would take any excess state land revenue, such as the $85 million bonus payment by Arch Coal in 2010 to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeast Montana, and split that money between property-tax reduction and repairing and building school facilities.

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