As Levies Fail, School Funding Fix Elusive

By Beacon Staff

This year has been a trying one for Montana schools concerned about funding. In recent months, statewide voters denied several major levies, a handful of legislators called for a special session and a coalition of school districts and educators took the state back to court.

It’s likely schools will simply have to cut and scrimp their way through this year and hope for a solution in the next Legislature.

“There are a lot of issues that will need to be addressed,” Linda McCulloch, state superintendent, said. “I think the best time for that will be the next session, which will hopefully be less contentious so folks are really able to focus in on issues. There was so much fighting in the Legislature during the last session I think some of the special needs of schools got lost.”

At issue is school funding, which has caused broad and heated disputes in Montana’s courts and legislative sessions in recent years.

In 2003, a coalition of school districts, education groups, unions and parents led by the Columbia Falls school district successfully sued the state claiming that it had failed to live up to its constitutional obligation of funding a “free, quality” education. The original lawsuit said state funding had lagged behind inflation for years, shifting the funding burden to local taxpayers and leading to widespread program cuts, accreditation failures and difficulty in recruiting teachers, among other things.

In December 2005, a brief special legislative session significantly boosted state funding, and in the first 2007 special session, the Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer agreed on a budget that funded all-day kindergarten and provided an inflationary increase for educating grades 1 through 12 this year. However, educators say, the state budget didn’t include an increase sufficient for schools to keep up with inflation for the next school year.

According to a report from the Montana Legislative Services Division in December, 40 percent of all Montana school districts weren’t expected to have enough operating funds to continue this year’s programs next year.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition hopes to prove its case yet again, having returned to the courts in January saying that despite increases the state is still using the same defective funding formula. And, after several school levies failed this month – including ones in the state’s two largest school districts, Great Falls and Billings – four state senators announced a plan to request a special session in June to consider a proposal that would provide an additional $30 million to fund Montana schools.

“The situation is pretty diverse across the board,” McCulloch said. “Some schools have organized their budget in such a way that they’re okay, or they’ve had the ability to pass a levy, but some might be in more dire situations.”

The Flathead Valley hasn’t avoided the funding woes, as several school districts asked voters to approve bonds this month, saying they were expecting shortfalls in the coming year.

Mike Nicosia, superintendent of the Columbia Falls school district, which is the lead plaintiff against the state, has said that in Columbia Falls the elementary school district needs $250,000 to maintain its current programs next year but can raise only $65,000 in a property tax levy. That levy passed earlier this month, but a $142,091 levy for the town’s high school failed, along with levies for Helena Flats, Olney-Bissel and Smith Valley school districts. Whitefish voters approved two levies, one each for the town’s high school and elementary school.

“One thing that’s sometimes difficult for the public to understand, I think, is they’ll see some schools are running levies and others are not,” Marcia Sheffels, Flathead County superintendent, said. “It doesn’t mean they’re doing just fine and the others are being greedy. It means they’ve been able to find another way to shift funds.”

The Kalispell school district made some staff cuts instead of running a levy, financial director Todd Watkins said, because the school district, bolstered by rising enrollment, had transitional funds to hold it over until the next year. “We wanted to keep our chips in our pocket I guess you’d say for coming years,” he said. “We just didn’t think we’d have success passing a levy. It’s not a good time to be asking for more when people are going through troubling times economically.”

In fact, this year four of the seven proposed levies in Flathead County failed. Schools saw more success in the preceding three years with only nine out of 39 levies failing, according to county records.

While there’s little agreement yet on how to solve funding dilemmas, several education officials and legislators said they didn’t believe a special session would help matters.

“This wouldn’t be a one-day discussion and putting one side or the other in a corner and trying to cram another fix in is not putting the proper thought to it,” Rep. Mike Jopek of Whitefish said. “The next session starts in January 2009, only seven months away. Why can’t we wait seven months to really address this and take the time if there’s a problem?”

McCulloch agreed, saying, despite the school funding needs, that unless there was broad agreement heading into a special session she didn’t think the outcome would be positive for schools. “Historically, special sessions are often not very good for education,” she said. “The chair of the House Education Committee is still the same, the committee is the same and nothing for school funding got through that committee. You have to change those parameters or the outcome will be the same as the last Legislature.”

Jopek echoed Schweitzer’s sentiments, saying he’d like to see more accountability on the part of the schools, showing where recent monies have been spent, how effective those funds were and where more may be needed. And lawmakers, he said, need to do a better job of facilitating relationships and communication with the schools before and during the next legislative session.

Until then, several of the state’s schools will be looking for areas to cut back or save in the next academic year. “I think all the (Flathead County) schools are dealing with short budgets,” Sheffels said. “They’re being very, very creative in deciding a strategy as to how they’re going to make things work. Most of them will have a struggle.”

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