By CODY BLOOMSBURG
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
HELENA – Some Republican lawmakers said Monday they’re hoping to advance a new vehicle to fund Montana’s K-12 education for the next two years.
The news comes as the sponsor of an earlier GOP plan to increase state aid to public schools all but abandoned hope that his bill would ever pass the Senate.
Senate Bill 403, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, would have given schools statewide a slight funding increase over next biennium, in part by redistributing oil and gas revenue from school districts with surpluses.
But that bill failed its initial Senate vote last week and was sent back to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which stripped $12 million from the bill.
Jones said today there is no indication the Senate is prepared to change its mind about the bill and he has no intention of trying to blast it out of committee.
“My disappointment remains that it would be becoming policy if we (had) just had a couple or three more green lights,” Jones said. “It would be hammering along. Now my fear is K-12 education is going to see a much more limited day.”
But there is talk of drastically amending another bill to cover the shortfalls that many of Montana’s K-12 schools are scrambling to anticipate.
Senate Bill 329, by Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, had originally sought to allow school districts to form co-operatives to share the costs of services like transportation. But Zinke said Monday he is open to having the bill amended to carry a last-ditch funding plan.
The bill has already passed through the Senate and been heard by a House panel.
Details were sketchy, but Zinke said Monday that, after amendments, SB 329 would probably resemble Jones’ bill. But above all, he added, it would need bipartisan effort, an allusion to the fact that Jones’ bill could have passed the Senate if only a few Democrats had voted for it.
In the House, Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, said he was disappointed to hear that SB 403 won’t be coming over. He also said there is talk of working with House Democrats to forge a compromise.
“House leadership is discussing options,” Reichner said. “We’ve reached out to the Democratic leadership, and right now we’re formulating what our game plan is.”
Democrats criticized Jones' bill as being too complex and questioned why Republicans didn't go along with Gov. Brian Schweitzer's initial proposal to take $76 million in oil money to stem rising costs. But Republicans saw that as unfair to a majority of oil-bearing districts that don’t have large surpluses.
“Had it been easy to do it simple and not really hit someone over the head, it would have been done simple to begin with,” Jones said.
Jones' bill would redistribute about $33 million in oil and gas revenue, taking 10 percent of the funding from every school district that receives it.
It would take additional money from eight districts that get money beyond a set cap. The bill also included a number of one-time revenue transfers to raise total state funding for K-12 schools to at least the levels in Schweitzer's proposal.
The eight eastern Montana districts affected, and the amounts they would lose under SB 403 during the next two years, are Brorson Elementary, $380,959; Lambert Elementary, $2.7 million; Lambert High School, $2.7 million; Baker K-12 schools, $4.4 million; Savage High School, $475,766; Sidney High School, $2.8 million; Rau Elementary, $83,507; and Bainville K-12, $20,922.
Besides complaining about SB 403’s complexity, Democrats also condemned its new “pathways to excellence” incentive program, which would grant $11 million to school districts who meet certain performance benchmarks.
Outside the Capitol, educators are still wondering how it's all going to shake out. “It's a pretty convoluted deal right now,” said Lance Melton, director of the Montana School Boards Association.
Another bill still in the mix is House Bill 630, which would also take money from oil-rich districts. But it would only shift about $1.2 million in all, or $1 for every $5 that a school district receives in oil money over a set cap. Under that bill, once a school collects 100 percent of its budget in excess of needed funding, the state would start taking the surplus.
With Montana school districts working hard to build their budgets and craft special levies, Zinke said his focus is finding a way to make SB 329 the solution to a session-long problem.
“My attention is now on education it was workers' comp,” Zinke said. “Now it's a mission … and it's a cannot-fail mission.”