Schools districts around Madison County are facing cuts in state funding, but just what those cuts are going to be is still unknown as the Montana Legislature still struggles to find some agreement on a state budget, including school funding.
Throughout Madison County, district superintendents are paying close attention to school funding bills moving through the legislature. But final numbers may not come until the legislature passes a budget and it is signed by the governor.
In the meantime, schools boards are left in limbo as to what next year’s budget will look like, but fairly certain they’ll have less state money to work with than this year.
“We’re just holding tight and we’re going to let them (legislators) do their job and we’re going to put the pieces together once they determine what our funding is going to be,” said Twin Bridges superintendent Chad Johnson. “It’s a little bit frustrating, but its what we’ve become accustomed to. This nothing new at all.”
The scenario is that school boards at this point are left with estimates in funding levels based on which pieces of legislation are likely to pass or by basing it on last years budget.
Only Ennis has decided a general fund levy amount. The Ennis School Board last week approved a $103,000 general fund levy to put before voters on May 3.
The rationalization of getting a levy on the ballot was that $103,000 was the maximum the school district would be short, superintendent Doug Walsh told the school board. If voters passed the levy and the state comes through with more funding then the district would only levy the amount it needed, Walsh said.
School officials in Harrison, Twin Bridges and Sheridan all say they will likely have to run a general fund levy, but unlike Ennis are waiting for final number from the legislature before they go to voters for a levy.
“I’m not going to say which is the right way to do it but that’s the way we’ve chosen to do it,” said Jeff Marsh, chairman of the Sheridan School Board.
At the Legislature
As of Tuesday, three bills are still alive that deal with state funding, said Dennis Parman, deputy state school superintendent.
Essentially, the state budget is in House Bill 2, which is still working its way through the legislature. HB 2 authorizes funding for schools, but other bills have to provide the funding mechanisms, Parman said.
“House Bill 2 is going to set the level of funding for schools but it doesn’t do it all by itself,” he said.
One of the keys to school funding this session is replacing the federal stimulus money used to help fund schools during the last session, he said.
The only way to keep school funding at the level it was last year is to increase funding by about 1.9 percent this year and about 1.5 percent next year, Parman said. This will compensate for the loss of the stimulus money.
Currently three bills are working jointly through the legislature to address the school funding – Senate Bill 329, HB 611 and HB 316.
It’s not clear yet if any of those bills will provide schools with last year’s level of funding.
This year one of the most contentious issues with school funding in this legislative session is how to use excess oil and gas revenues generated by school districts in eastern Montana.
Some legislators want most of that excess money spread out to poorer school districts. Those districts with the excess revenue are resisting that plan.
The school funding plan initially proposed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer called for the redistribution of about 90 percent of that excess revenue, said Parman. Legislators are now talking about redistributing about 70 percent of the revenue.
This session education funding has been a frustrating topic in the legislature, said Sen. Debby Barrett, R – Dillon.
An early bill, SB 403, would have actually addressed how schools are funded in Montana and provided what Barrett thought were good solutions to what is a very complicated system. However, SB 403 died in the senate on a 25-25 vote, she said.
The bill received no support from Democrats and Republicans from oil and gas counties voted against it as well, Barrett said.
And though the mechanism for funding schools may not get addressed during this legislative session, it’s a big problem for everyone in the state, she said.
“There’s nothing in this state that’s more confusing and convoluted,” Barrett said.
She’s not optimistic that schools will be funded at a level equal to last year.
“We’re dealing with a shortfall, that’s what the problem is,” she said.
However, Rep. Bob Wagner, R – Harrison, thinks school funding will fair much better than other state programs. He doesn’t think funding for schools will get cut at all.
“I prepared most everybody in my district to live with about a 5 to 10 percent cut in funding overall,” Wagner said. “We cut a lot of things, a lot of areas, but schools have not taken a cut … They’ve prepared for the worst and they’re probably going to be just fine because they’re going to get more than they expected and that’s probably better than the other way around.”
Doing a head count
School funding in Montana is largely based on enrollment, Parman said. When enrollment declines, schools get less state funding, even though their costs might not change.
For instance, if a school looses 15 students, they loose several thousands in funding, he said. However, those students are likely spread out among all the grades so the district isn’t able to cut back in teaching staff or any other operating expense despite the loss in funding.
“The cost hasn’t gone down but the funding has gone down,” he said.
Enrollment is a concern for local schools.
In Harrison, enrollment this year dropped by 19 students from the previous year, from 111 students to 92, said superintendent Darren Strauch.
Harrison receives about $4,900 of state funding for each elementary student and about $6,280 for each high school student, Strauch said.
And though school enrollment is generally declining, it varies from year to year, he said. Two years ago, Harrison had 99 students.
“We have ebbs and flows of student population,” he said.
And the state funds are based on a three-year average student enrollment or the current enrollment whichever is higher, Strauch said.
Like Twin Bridges and Sheridan, Harrison is going to wait to decide on a levy, he said.
“We’re adopting a wait and see attitude until we get a better idea,” Strauch said.