LETTER: Governor’s Ranching Analogy Falls Apart

By Beacon Staff

I disagree wholeheartedly with Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s characterization of how he keeps our state solvent (Sept. 15 Beacon: “The Montana Example”), especially with regard to school funding. He has essentially accepted the federal supplemental money for schools, and used it to take the place of money already allocated to each district. The net gain for education: zero!

Our governor’s analogy of running our state government like a ranch may appear to be valid at first blush. However, when you compare ranching business theory to what’s actually transpiring with state budget management, his analogy falls apart. Specifically, his current treatment of education departs from best ranching practices. When a rancher brings a brucellosis-free cattle herd in for vaccinations, for example, does he say, “Gee, this is such a healthy herd, I think I’ll just forgo the expense of vaccine this year, as a cost cutting measure!” I daresay not.

Yet, when significant federal money is made available to us for the purpose of improving our effectiveness, or preparing our education system to compete in the 21st Century, has he allowed these dollars to be used by our schools as intended? No, he instead has socked the money into the school coffers, with much fanfare, while quietly extracting that same amount through the back door of our school funding, so no district in the state of Montana can realize any amount of relief within their already tight (indeed, maxed-out) budget.

Returning to the ranching reference, here’s a true story: Back in the ‘70s when cattle prices and feed prices were both very high, I knew a young college business school graduate. He bought in to the cattle market, calculating that if he carefully rationed out his feed to his pregnant cows, he could make his investment pay off in feed savings alone. It might have worked, except that he failed to anticipate the out-of-season blizzard which hit the east side at the end of May. His under-fed herd was unable to withstand the stress of the storm, and he lost over half of his cow-calf pairs (along with his shirt). Won’t short-changing our youth educationally have the same figurative effect on their competitive edge?

I have always tried to give our governor the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his management style. However, in view of his lack of foresight and support in the area of education, I am appalled and ashamed. Let’s not balance our budget on the backs of our students, undermining the health of their future!

Ruth Harrison