HELENA – GOP lawmakers floated two new plans last week to increase the state’s financial support for public schools, but as the session’s days dwindle, Montana school districts have no clear answers as they prepare to ask residents to vote on local levies.
The state’s financial contribution to K-12 schools is a critical piece of most local school budgets. It’s a crucial part of the state’s budget puzzle too, but so far it remains the missing piece as Republicans debate, largely among themselves, how much to spend and where the money should come from.
GOP leaders say they hope to present their budget to Gov. Brian Schweitzer this week, so the pressure is on to provide the school portion too. As of late last week, the Senate and the House were trying to build support for two different solutions.
The Senate’s plan would fully cover the effect of inflation on school budgets and increase the state’s share of K-12 costs by about 2 percent over the next two years. The Senate Finance and Claims Committee has tucked its plan in to House Bills 316 and 611.
The Senate endorsed HB 611 Friday, but only after deadlocking on an earlier vote. Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, told GOP senators that the bill held crucial language that dictated levels of funding. If it did not pass, he warned, the Senate would have little clout in negotiations with the House over the issue.
“We’re going to have to hammer out some sort of a school solution,” Jones said, “but the Senate doesn’t have much of a hammer if it doesn’t have a bill.”
The main sticking point remains the idea of taking oil and gas revenue from resource-rich school districts and redistributing it statewide to help school districts avoid serious budget cuts and teacher layoffs.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s first recommended using oil-and-gas money in his budget proposal. Jones and other Republicans thought it used too much, so they created their own plan based on using less. Even then, Senate Republicans couldn’t unite behind the idea.
Meanwhile, the more conservative House took a crack at a solution. Last week a House committee backed a plan that would give schools about half of their estimated inflation costs and increase the total state aid by about 1 percent over two years. That plan also relies on oil-and-gas money.
The Senate’s plan would redistribute $34.6 million in oil-and-gas revenue, while the House measure would transfer $17.6 million.
The House’s plan is tucked into Senate Bill 329, which was scheduled for a vote Friday but was pulled from the agenda. One lawmaker close to this issue said the bill was being held in the House to pressure the Senate Education Committee to pass a bill allowing for public charter schools in Montana.
The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, is also the original sponsor of SB 329. He said last week that he wants that bill to be part of the Legislature’s final discussion over school funding.
Zinke also said he opposes the charter school bill, House Bill 603. He added that he’s willing to consider it with changes, but won’t be pushed into it. “I don’t yield to pressure,” Zinke said.
House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said a vote on SB 329 was delayed to give members more time to understand the issue and had nothing to do with the charter schools bill.
As of Saturday, the House had yet to schedule a vote on its plan, and the Senate had yet to vote on the second component of its plan, contained in House Bill 316.
Whatever solution legislators craft must ultimately win the governor’s approval.