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Gazette Opinion: Why Montanans ought to study school budgets

Gazette Opinion: Why Montanans ought to study school budgets

Math was the most important subject this summer in Montana public schools. Trustees and administrators all over the state have been struggling to subtract expenses and divide limited resources among the services required to maintain quality education for all of their students.

Tightening up spending is nothing new for Glendive school leaders. Between 2000 and 2004, neither the high school nor the elementary district increased its budget even $1. The spending was constrained by the state funding formula because student enrollment was declining. The high school budget of $3 million for 2009-2010 is only 3.57 percent more than it was nine years ago.

The jury is still out on how much the federal stimulus law is helping to boost the national economy. But for Montana schools, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's effects are immediate and significant. The Montana Legislature used ARRA money to provide a modest increase in K-12 school funding for the biennium. And federal payments direct to school districts with low-income and special education students are being boosted for two years under ARRA. The ARRA is helping Montana districts big and small balance their budgets this year, although some still have to make staff or program cuts.

Grateful for ARRA funds

Lockwood Schools Superintendent Eileen Johnson is grateful for the ARRA money. Eighteen percent of Lockwood's 1,200 students qualify for special education and some have extremely high needs, such as requiring a full-time personal aide.

There are not cuts at Lockwood this year, even though a general fund levy was defeated in May. Federal ARRA funds are helping to balance the budget. The school is adding third- and fourth-grade teachers to get those class sizes back down within accreditation standards.

Montana's school funding formula is complicated. This year state revenues provide barely 64 percent of school funding, while local property tax levies generate most of the rest. Montana public schools rely on state legislative appropriations, on local levies that state law requires them to collect and on voted levies to receive the full amount of funding permitted by state law.

93% of levies pass

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association in Helena, tracks levy elections across Montana. Typically, more than 90 percent of school levies put to a vote win approval every year. That passage rate slipped in 2008 to 82 percent. In 2009, fewer districts than usual asked for voted levies. However, among the 88 levies on ballots statewide in May and June, voters approved 82 for a passage rate of 93 percent, according to an MTSBA survey.

"People recognized that schools were in a rough spot this year," Melton said.

Bozeman ran a successful elementary levy election in June. Bozeman's K-8 enrollment has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, the elementary growth has outstripped the funding increases provided through the state school formula, which sets both a floor and ceiling on public schools' operating budgets.

Bozeman this summer had to close a $1.9 million K-12 budget shortfall, according to Superintendent Kirk Miller. Miller said Bozeman's budget challenge is "quite similar to all AA districts," which, he notes, educate 40 percent of all Montana K-12 students in just seven school districts.

Forsyth Schools also ran a levy election in June and won voter approval. Superintendent Dave Shreeve said it was important to postpone the vote till the schools could provide "real numbers" based on the Legislature's budget decisions. If voters had said no, the schools would have had to cut staff again for this year.

As the nation debates health care reform legislation, the rising cost of employee health insurance pressures school budgets. For example, employee health insurance premiums will increase 7 percent this year in Lockwood Schools, 12 percent in Billings Public Schools and 19.5 percent in Forsyth Schools. Shreeve notes that state law allows counties to raise their tax levy to cover increases in health insurance costs, but doesn't allow schools to do the same.

ACT scores

Montana students continue to perform above the national average on standardized tests. Last week, the Office of Public Instruction announced that Montana's 2009 high school graduates averaged a score of 22 on the ACT exam, compared to the national composite score of 21.

Unfortunately, the national average is abysmal and the ACT doesn't even test all students. Only 23 percent of U.S. students scored high enough in all four subject areas - English, math, reading and science - to indicate that they are likely to get a C or higher in a corresponding college course. Just 26 percent of Montana students met the benchmark scores in all four subjects.

As Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said, "Substantial room for growth exists in college readiness in math and science skills needed by our students in their first-year college courses."

Another indicator of needed improvement is in the 2009 Kids Count Data Book published recently by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report said that between 2000 and 2007, the percentage of Montanans ages 16 to 19 who were high school dropouts didn't change. During the same period, nationally, the percentage of that age group who were dropouts decreased by more than a third. Kids Count ranked Montana 23rd among the 50 states in dropouts.

What these and other educational outcome measures suggest is that Montana public schools are better than most around the nation, but they aren't improving much at a time when the world is changing and demanding new, higher educational skills for workers.

With the start of a new academic year at hand, Montanans need to think about the future. So over the next three days, our editorials will take a look at how Montana public schools are coping financially. We ask readers to consider:

• How well are public schools preparing all our children to be productive citizens?

• Do the schools have the resources to meet that challenge?

• What are your priorities for limited resources?

These questions ought to be answered in each school community and communicated to trustees, state lawmakers and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

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