HELENA — A proposed school-funding bill that increases state money for schools and cuts local property taxes got another political boost Tuesday as a legislative budget panel approved spending that aligns with the proposal.
On mostly bipartisan votes, the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education made its recommendations for state public-school funding for the next two years.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad — the sponsor of Senate Bill 175, the comprehensive school-funding bill – said most of the panel’s votes set spending levels that coordinate with the spending framework of his bill.
Denise Juneau, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction and a supporter of SB175, said the votes were “a great morning for schools.”
“Throughout this entire (legislative) session, I’ve been telling people it’s been very heartening to hear all the talk about supporting public schools,” she said. “There’s been a lot of bipartisan discussion. … It showed itself today.”
Nonetheless, Juneau said the school-funding proposal still has a “long journey” through the Legislature.
SB175 cleared a Senate committee last week and may be on the Senate floor later this week, Jones said.
Jones’ bill would increase state funding for public schools by about $60 million the next two years, route more funds to school construction, more widely distribute oil-and-gas revenue to help Eastern Montana schools deal with impacts from oil-and-gas development, and cut local school property taxes by $19.5 million a year, at a minimum.
Yet while Jones’ bill directs the changes, it doesn’t directly appropriate all of the money.
At Tuesday’s joint budget panel meeting, its six members recommended school spending levels in House Bill 2, the main budget bill, that coordinate with Jones’ bill.
Those recommendations will be forwarded to the full House Appropriations Committee, which votes on HB2 next month.
Some of the changes endorsed Tuesday include:
• An inflationary increase of $22 million in state funding for public schools.
• Money for school technology and to help implement new, tougher curriculum standards. Jones’ bill would provide more funds to augment the amounts recommended Tuesday.
• An increase in money to expand the Montana Digital Academy, which offers online courses and instruction to high school students across the state.
The panel also shifted $2 million from Indian Education for All, a program that teaches Native American culture to students statewide, to fund a program for teaching Native American language and sign language at reservation schools.
“Language is a gift and safety pin for cultural preservation, identity, pride and communication between two worlds – physical and spiritual,” said Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, a member of the Chippewa Cree tribe. “This measure is critical to preserving what we have left of our languages so that our culture and history can continue.”
Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, opposed the move, saying she wants to fund the language program, but doesn’t want the money taken from the Indian Education for All funding.
The recommendations from the subcommittee will be forwarded to the full House Appropriations Committee, which will vote on them next month.
Jones said he was pleased that most of the votes Tuesday were bipartisan, reflecting widespread support for the funding proposals in his bill.