Prioritizing Schools in Taxpayers’ Best Interest

By Beacon Staff

If there is any interest group that can traditionally wade through the partisan divide of Montana politics, it’s children. For many legislative sessions the mantra for passing bills in the Legislature is the same: “It’s for the kids.” This simple declaration paved the way for all-day kindergarten and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Both these programs are popular today.

We’ll see how this refrain plays out in the coming months. Public school students have two locals in charge of the education committees in Helena, Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, and Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork. I’ve worked with both of these men and I trust they will remain true leaders for public education.

These gentlemen have work ahead of them as, right now, there are some 75 bill requests in the hopper to change education laws in some manner. Here’s a handful, but the requests run the gamut: raising the compulsory attendance age, addressing bullying, beginning Saturday school, requiring boiler operators as staff, electing members of the Board of Public Education and eliminating tenure. But many bill requests simply look to change school funding.

Only time will tell how our system of a free and quality education withstands the 2011 Legislature. There will be many who want to use budget dollars for corporate tax cuts rather than funding schools. By spring, we’ll see how many moderates are left to put kids first. As it always does, it will come down to budget priorities.

How many state dollars are used for education is up to lawmakers, but the fact remains that the more corporate and income tax dollars from statewide sources, the less homeowner property taxes are required to fill the local budget gap. If you think homeowner property taxes are too high now, see what happens if the Legislature decides not to fund its fair share of public education.

There is a direct link between state funding of schools and how many mills can be levied locally. If the Legislature shortchanges local schools, homeowners will be on the hook for a larger portion of local financing. It’s most economical for local homeowners to have the Legislature prioritize the state funding of our local schools with Montana’s diverse revenue portfolio.

The executive budget proposal eliminates the business equipment tax for most Montana small businesses. These revenues fund local schools. Almost every small business owner I talk with find this particular tax an inhibitor to economic recovery. But the Legislature may well overreach, not backfill, and blow the deal.

It’s about time Montana put the wealth of oil and gas school dollars, about $76 million, on the table for equal distribution statewide. Residential property taxpayers in 10 of 56 counties account for 80 percent of the statewide homeowner dollars. And the Flathead is the top funder. Flathead taxpayers deserve to have oil and gas wealth equalized, helping our local schools. Fair is fair.

Montana public schools offer equal opportunity for all to succeed and learn. From kindergarten to two- and four-year universities, the opportunity is there for our young people to be successful.

It’s in homeowners’ best economic interest for the Legislature to properly fund local public schools and keep the doors open to all. Local school boards can best set budgets to be more efficient, allow flexible curriculum and assure that local control reflects parental needs.

Montana has some fine public schools and great teachers. Let’s keep it that way. The Legislature should set student expectations high, then invest in resources, teachers and leaders to meet those expectations.

And thank the leaders who assure schools endure in the 62nd Legislature. Remember, it’s for the kids.

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