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Act in haste, repent at leisure

If we are going to fix the school funding issue, let’s at least do it thoughtfully.

If you are confused about the school funding problem that the legislature is going to face next January, you are in good company, and a lot of it. This is one area of government that is nearly incomprehensible to most people, and “nearly” is probably not the right adjective to use.

The issue is being forced on the legislature because of a successful lawsuit brought against the state by school districts and individuals. They hold that the state does not meet its Constitutional obligation to adequately fund elementary and secondary education, and the Court has agreed

The Court decision presents a concise explanation of the issue at hand: “…it [the state] should provide adequate funding to allow districts to meet the expectations established under state law, and the funding should be allocated in an equitable manner in order to secure equality of opportunity for all students in the state.”

To understand why the court ruled in favor of the school districts takes a minimum understanding of how our schools are funded, what the state requires our schools to do, and how the money the state gives to the districts is not sufficient to carry out duties mandated by the Montana Constitution and state and federal governments. Piece of cake, right?

There are three sources of funding for our local schools; state, federal, and local. The state share of school funding is set by a formula based on the type of school (elementary or secondary) and the number of students in it. The federal government pays part (and only a part) of the cost of federal programs like Special Education and school lunch. Finally, the local school district has to make up the rest of what it costs to provide an education to our kids.

There has been continual dispute over the fairness and adequacy of state funding. In 1989 the legislature passed a school funding bill in response to a lawsuit. In 1993 the legislature rewrote the funding laws in response to another lawsuit, and lo, here we are today just about to repeat history once again.

Requirements that schools must meet are set by state and federal law and the state Board of Public Education. Not surprisingly, these requirements have increased over the years and the money to implement them has not kept pace. The court has ruled that the state does not give  local school districts enough money to do even what the state itself requires them to do, so that by definition the state is not funding schools adequately. The feds are guilty of this, too, but the Montana court can’t rule on that.

The state does give local schools the ability to impose mill levies to make up some of what’s needed to carry out state mandates. As requirements have increased, local taxes have gone up 120 percent while the state’s share of the cost has decreased 17 percent.

School budgets cannot exceed a maximum amount established by law, and many schools are at that maximum now, but still are forced to cut teachers and programs to stay within the maximum budget. The Court holds that this indicates the state is not giving schools enough money to comply with state law.

Other indicators the Court used in deciding the case are the increasing number of schools with an inability to hire or retain teachers and to construct or maintain safe buildings.

And how has this come about? The Montana Legislature, like most governments that want to look good and not spend money doing it, has passed the buck. You will hear the claim that Montana has increased the amount of funding it has spent on education, and that’s true, but most of the increase comes from the school districts themselves, not the state.

Having the state pay for the increased costs of education rather than the local school districts helps spread the cost more evenly because the state collects taxes from every school district and distributes them based on need. This may increase taxes in wealthy school districts, but it decreases them in poorer ones. A “wealthy” school district has a high taxable value, perhaps because it has a power plant or refinery within its boundaries.

Dollar figures on what this might cost have been bandied about by various individuals and organizations, but it is significant that the Court order does not mention a specific monetary amount at all. The order gives the legislature until October 1, 2005 to comply. That would allow time for a Special Session of the legislature devoted to the issue, which is definitely in order.

The state has taken the case to the Montana Supreme Court and it is expected to issue a ruling before the legislature meets this January, but to bring a school funding bill forward in January is not a good idea. The regular session is squirrelly enough without introducing a topic of such complexity and importance that only one or two legislators, if that, will actually understand it.

New and many returning legislators will be totally in the dark as to how it will affect their constituents, and that is fair to neither the constituents nor the legislators. If we are going to address the problem at all, it needs at the very least to be addressed in a manner that is understandable to the people who are voting on it.

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Senator Jim Elliott Senator Jim Elliott is a State Senator from Trout Creek in his 15th year of legislative service, and is chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee.

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education, Montana, funding

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