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By signing Senate Bill 175 this week, Gov. Steve Bullock assured that public schools across Montana will get a funding boost over the next two years.

The $51 million biennial appropriation in the new law will benefit all schools big and small from west to east with modest increases in per-student and lump-sum payments.

The new law recognizes that spikes in enrollment increase costs for districts, and that the same lump sum payment for all districts shortchanges students in bigger districts.

Funding new students

Last year, when 300 new students enrolled, Billings got no money to educate them. Next year, if 300 new students enroll, Billings will get money for 260 of them.

Instead of one “basic entitlement” payment for the entire district, the new law will provide an additional payment for districts with more than 250 elementary students or more than 800 high school students. For each 80 students over 800, the high school district will receive an additional 5 percent of the basic entitlement. Similarly, districts will receive an additional 5 percent payment for every 25 elementary students over 250. Along with the House Bill 2 inflationary adjustment of less than 1 percent that all schools will receive, SB175 will increase funding next year for the Billings high school district by about $800,000 and for the Billings elementary district by about $1 million.

This money will help the district better meet the educational needs of its growing student body.

In signing SB175, Bullock praised the quality of Montana schools and teachers, continuing:

“Local school boards will have greater ability to address needs, with increased resources and tools for school improvement initiatives, competitive salaries, and other priorities. Using our natural resources revenues, we can make these investments without raising property taxes.”

Oil impact assistance

The natural resource revenue appropriated in SB175 is money from oil and gas production that had been going to the state general fund. School districts that have oil and gas production already retain a share of that revenue up to 130 percent the maximum budget state law allows. The excess was diverted to the state. SB175 will distribute it to nearby districts that have oil and gas impacts, but little or no production.

“Of the $51 million of additional investment in our K-12 education system, $22 million of that will go to just 39 of the state’s 416 school districts,” Bullock said in his signing statement. “In 2015, I will ask the Legislature to re-evaluate these provisions and to consider if the impacts have been addressed with the increased resource, and whether the mechanisms in SB175 are the most effective and equitable way to address those impacts moving forward.”

The governor’s office provided a chart showing how actual oil and gas revenues for 2012 would have been divvied up under the new law.

Under the old law, Eastern Montana school districts that had oil and gas production received $18 million from that production. If SB175 had been in place, the $13.3 million in oil and gas revenue that went to the state general fund would have instead been shared by some of those districts and others near the oil patch. For example, if revenues for this year are the same as last year:

 Sidney Elementary District would see an increase from $1.75 million to $6 million.

 Savage Elementary would receive an additional $589,841.

 Ekalaka Elementary would get $718,423 and Carter County High School would get $747,731.

 Custer County High School in Miles City, which received only $4,442 under the old law, would get $747,731.

Montana students will benefit from the collaboration of many people all over this great state who understand the importance of investing in quality public education. Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad sponsored SB175. It passed with support from Republicans and Democrats.

Now it’s up to local school boards, administrators and staff to use this new investment wisely. Their communities and their governor will be watching to see how it pays off.