The equation is complicated and not easily explained, but the answer can be summed up succinctly: Money.
When state Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch met with the South Central Montana Association of School Superintendents at the Golden Corral Wednesday in Billings, the talk came back to the same, simple summation - school districts are financially strapped and the quality of education in Montana is slipping.
The superintendents joined McCulloch, a Democrat, in decrying the decline in state funding.
"What the state pays for education has dropped from 72 percent 10 years ago to 60 percent now, and the difference falls on the local taxpayers," McCulloch said. "Their tax bill goes up, and they don't understand where the money is going."
"A lot of legislators haven't quite grasped the concept of declining enrollment," she said. "I had a legislator from the Bitterroot area come to me the other day and say, 'We gave you the largest increase in the history of school funding, and now you need more money. What's going on?' "
McCulloch said she hopes that the 1.8 percent increase funded during the 2001 legislative session isn't the largest possible increase.
She also noted that, when a district loses students, it loses state funding to a degree that isn't offset by savings from not serving those students.
She said the superintendents should work to make the public and legislators understand their financial problems.
all have your own school stories to tell," McCulloch said.
"You can go to the public and say, 'This is what we had to work with last year, and this is what we have this year and this is how much utility costs have increased and this is the increase in textbooks' and so on. You have to make it personal and not just some bulk sum."
McCulloch described the recent history of legislative funding for education: In 1993, the Legislature raided the education budget for more than $5 million to help balance the budget. There was no increase in K-12 education funding in 1995.
In 1997, the Legislature increased funding by 1 percent, but said it could only be used for buildings and computers "so parents could come to school and see a shiny new computer and new carpeting, but the gifted-learning and the special-education classes had to be cut," she said.
In 1999, the Legislature operated with a surplus and gave a 3 percent increase to education. In 2001, the increase was 1.8 percent.
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"If you factor in inflation, we're 16 percent behind where we were 15 years ago," she said.
McCulloch said she often hears questions about money from the lottery.
"It went into the teachers' retirement fund for a short period, and now it goes into the state's general fund," she said.
"People still think we're getting money from the lottery. We're not getting any money from the lottery."
One of the superintendents asked McCulloch a simple question: If the state's money isn't going to schools, then where is it going? She said she believes it is going to tax cuts for businesses.
"I'm not opposed to tax cuts," she said. "Maybe they'll work to attract more businesses to the state. They haven't yet, but maybe they will some day.
"But you've got to take care of certain things first, and education is one of those things. We've got to fund kids first.
"Legislators have to realize that businesses will not locate in Montana if we don't have an educated workforce and they won't locate in Montana if we don't have schools they want to send their kids to."
It comes from a shift in priorities, she said.
"Obviously, when the state was funding 70 percent of public instruction, there were different priorities than now when they're funding 60 percent," she said. "They've shifted down, and I don't see why we can't get them to shift back the other way."
McCulloch also touched on the teacher shortage.
"There was a study done a year or so ago that showed that in Montana, we need 900 new teachers each year to replace those who retire or move on to other jobs," she said.
"If you take all the higher-education programs in Montana that graduate teachers, there were 909 that graduated in one year. Seventy-five percent of them immediately leave the state, and I won't even begin to talk about the reasons why they leave the state.
"So the result is that you might have someone in front of the classroom, but that person won't be a qualified teacher but just be a warm body."
John Fitzgerald can be reached at 657-1392 or at email@example.com.