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A sculpture of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher guards the Capitol in Helena.

Montana K-12 public schools had to lean more heavily on local property taxpayers in the current two-year state budget cycle because the 2017 Legislature balanced the state budget in part by cutting support for schools.

  • Local property taxes went up last year in most places to raise the minimum amount law requires to operate the schools because the Legislature reduced the state contribution.
  • A program that helps districts with below-average taxable value per pupil repay part of their bonded debt received no state funding at all for the biennium.

The new budget proposed by Gov. Steve Bullock would reverse those cost shifts and provide a small inflationary increase: 0.91 percent in the fiscal year starting July 1 and 1.83 percent the next year.

Bullock’s budget includes the same inflationary increase for special education, which hasn’t received inflationary adjustments in the past, said Lance Melton, executive director of Montana School Boards Association.

“If we get this passed, the entire formula will be funded for inflation,” Melton said. The law requiring the governor to budget for inflation has been on the books since 2005 as the result of a lawsuit over inadequate state funding.

The Legislature doesn’t have to approve inflationary or any other increases. There’s probably four months of negotiation ahead on the K-12 budget. As of last week, the 150 lawmakers had requested more than 140 bills relating to education, many dealing with some aspect of funding.

The governor’s budget doesn’t include any appropriation for building or renovating school facilities, according to budget office staff. However, Bullock’s infrastructure proposal includes $44 million for communities impacted by coal, oil and gas development. If that passed, communities receiving that money could decide to use it for school facilities.

Bullock’s proposal would restore the schools’ funding for transportation and achievement data that was cut several million dollars in the current biennium.

“It restores a lot of elements that had been lost,” said Greg Upham, Billings superintendent. “If that holds, we would be very pleased.”

The most costly and controversial new spending in Bullock’s K-12 budget is to allow preschoolers to be counted as students for state funding purposes. Bullock proposes to allow school districts to receive state reimbursement of up to half a day for each preschooler they educate. The proposal is for preschool to be voluntary for parents and for local districts.

The benefits of children attending high-quality preschool have been confirmed in countless research studies, and many Montana parents already send their children to preschool at their own expense. Children from low-income families who cannot afford private preschool have the most to gain from access to publicly funded preschool.

The availability of preschool in our public schools would be great for children. However, there must be political will to pay for this benefit. The executive budget includes $10 million for next year and $11 million for fiscal 2021 for preschool, apparently projecting that not all school districts will start preschool classes.

Under the Bullock proposal, the state would increase its share of K-12 costs to 68.5 percent, according to Melton, who added: “Two-thirds of the population lives in communities that would see local school taxes decrease.”

Our citizen legislators should restore the onerous funding cuts made in 2017 and provide the increased support our K-12 schools need to educate our kids, grandkids and neighbors for the next two years.

If you agree, please speak up now. Call, write or email your senator and representative about your concerns before they go to Helena for the Jan. 7 start of the session. Ask them to support the state funding that will assure Montana’s children are receiving the quality education they need and deserve.

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