Senators to Request Session on School Funding

By Beacon Staff

GREAT FALLS – Four state senators plan to request a special session in June to consider a proposal that would provide an additional $30 million to fund Montana schools.

Democratic Sens. Don Ryan of Great Falls and Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow said they discussed the idea with Sen. John Cobb, a Republican from Augusta, and Sen. Frank Smith, a Poplar Democrat.

Ryan and Kitzenberg said Friday their efforts were spurred by the defeat of levies in two of Montana’s largest school districts, Billings and Great Falls.

“We think such economic factors as rising gasoline and food costs were a big reason why people opposed levies,” Ryan said. “And we believe the state has enough surplus revenue to help prevent school districts from cutting too many teachers and programs.”

The senators have asked Greg Petesch, the Legislature’s chief legal counsel, to write a letter summarizing their arguments for a special session.

Ryan said the topic could probably be dealt with in one day because legislators are familiar with the senators’ “per-unit” funding proposal. Under the plan, school districts would get money for each elementary, middle and high school in their respective districts.

The four senators want to make per-unit funding an ongoing part of the state school formula.

The plan calls on the state to pay about $18 million a year into the program. School districts also would be authorized to spend up to $12 million more through “permissive levies,” which don’t require public votes.

The districts could choose to spend only the extra state portion and not use the permissive levies, said Ryan, who wants to call the special session on June 26 or June 27 before school districts finalize their budgets in August.

Sarah Elliot, a spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, declined to comment on the proposal, but said the administration “has funded education at historic levels” including a 27 percent increase in K-12 financing since 2005.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.