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Administrators: $70 million boost in school aid not enough

Administrators: $70 million boost in school aid not enough

HELENA — Giving schools $70 million more in state aid over the next two years is a nice gesture, but won't be enough to avoid additional program cuts and teacher layoffs, school administrators and officials told a House committee Thursday.

They recommended increasing the money proposed under the Legislature's main school funding bill or pairing it with other legislation, such as a $46.5 million state health insurance program for school employees, to create a more balanced aid package.

"One of (those) two things has to happen and if it doesn't then this is not adequate relief," said Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, which sued the state over school funding in 2002.

Copps and other education groups involved in the lawsuit could go back to court if they're not satisfied with the Legislature's response to a state Supreme Court order last fall declaring the current funding system inadequate.

Lawmakers are proposing the $70 million boost in per-student funding as a way to tide schools over until they finish crafting a new system. Most education officials want much more than that.

Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, introduced his bill Thursday before the House Select Committee on Education, although the committee took no immediate action. The measure, which is endorsed by the Schweitzer administration, won bipartisan approval in the Senate earlier this session.

Ryan told committee members he believed his bill would help schools "stop the bleeding" until a new funding system can be implemented, and proposed an amendment to address concerns about budget flexibility by some opponents.

"If we act now, we will let the school boards go forward with their budgeting next year and then the members of the Legislature can work on a long-term funding formula," he said.

Dan Martin, the operations officer for schools in Billings, said Ryan's bill would help his district avoid severe cuts in the 2006 budget year, but wouldn't do much in 2007, when the increases in per-student funding no longer apply.

"I don't know what we're going to do in that second year," Martin said. "We've already closed three elementary schools. They're gone. We don't know what we're going to do."

Ann Bellwood of the Sun River Valley school board said her district would welcome any influx of state money. Officials have delayed building projects, laid off teachers and cut programs there for years, but they still face the closure of their middle school this coming year without more funding.

"Without this bill my school will be closed," said her daughter, Sun River Middle School student Leslie Bellwood. "I love this school. My teachers are really cool. We have conversations. We're just like family there."

Education groups have been lobbying for a combination of Ryan's bill and the health insurance program proposal for weeks, saying it could address districts' health insurance worries and school funding woes at the same time. Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, whose members include most of the state's teachers, has said the package would cost about $95 million.

That's $14 million more than the $81 million for schools proposed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, although education groups say they've come up with ways to scrape the extra money together. Schweitzer, however, opposes the health insurance program because of its price, and did not include it in his school funding plan, meaning a veto could be likely if it passed both chambers.

A vote on the insurance program was planned Friday in the select committee.

Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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