Dan Martin, chief operations officer for Billings Public Schools, said Wednesday night that he has seen many attempts over the years to fix public school funding.
"Since 1980 we've met about every five years and we've never fixed the problems," Martin said during a public hearing on proposed changes in public school funding.
The Billings meeting was the sixth of nine public hearings scheduled by the Education and Local Government Committee. The focus of the two-hour meeting was the school funding recommendations of the Governor's Public School Funding Study Advisory Council.
About 70 people attended the relatively low-key hearing at the Billings Community Center. Sen. Linda Nelson, D-Medicine Lake, chaired the session.
"We hear different things everywhere we go," Nelson told the group. "Every region has its own needs."
The meeting began with a 45-minute presentation on the recommendations by Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff at the state Office of Public Instruction, and Amy Carlson, budget analyst for the governor's office.
Quinlan, also vice chair of the advisory council, said the council divided issues of concern into three groups: funding, governance and tax equity. The first category dealt with the mechanisms for funding schools, such as the general fund, the retirement fund and the transportation fund.
Quinlan said school districts and local taxpayers have especially felt the impact of declining enrollment. Districts have had to cut budgets and the burden of paying for education has continued to shift away from the state and to local property owners.
Quinlan said school costs decline as enrollment declines, but not as quickly as the state funding formula requires. For that reason, the council recommended allowing districts to use a three-year average of students, rather than a one-year average, to calculate state aid.
Averaging over a longer period would allow districts time to adjust, she said.
Quinlan also said that since 1995, state funding has not kept pace with inflation. Providing an annual inflation adjustment tied to the Consumer Price Index for the basic entitlement and per-student funding to districts from the state is another of the council's recommendations.
Quinlan went on to explain the reasoning for other recommendations, from creating a countywide levy to fund the property tax portion of the BASE budgets of all school districts in a county to creating a statewide insurance pool for all districts and requiring all of the districts to participate.
After the presentation, about a dozen members of the audience addressed the seven legislators about the recommendations.
Martin encouraged the legislators, among other things, to create a statewide insurance pool, whether or not the state pays for it.
"Let's put it together and get it running, and then work on funding," Martin said.
Martin also spoke in favor of equalizing revenue in the state. He said he hoped the current effort to solve funding woes would be successful.
"I hope this group will lead this effort, and we'll be along side to help you solve the problems," Martin said. "I really don't want to go through this again in five years."
Billings Public Schools Trustee Conrad Stroebe shared three funding solutions with the legislators: implementing a tourist and entertainment tax, equalizing property taxes throughout the state and implementing a payroll tax.
Stroebe also encouraged the use of the CPI to help keep state funding of districts on track.
Billings Trustee Peter Gesuale disputed a statement by Quinlan that it costs more to educate students in a small school than a large school. Gesuale said that once a school exceeds capacity, such as West High and Senior High in Billings, that theory no longer holds up.
Kathryn Pfister of the Musselshell Elementary District expressed concern that creating a county-wide levy could place an excessive burden on taxpayers in some districts who are already paying a lot for education.
Rep. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, who is not on the committee, pointed out that the limited time-frame the council had to work prevented it from tackling other serious issues, such as school-funding adequacy and recruiting and retaining teachers.
"If these solutions are implemented without looking at those issues, the public may believe the problem is fixed," Gillan said.
She thanked the council for its work, but urged further action.
"I commend you, but I think we need to really look at school funding and fix the whole problem."