By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Legislature is moving forward with its response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that the state's education funding system is unconstitutional, but the education community is apprehensive.
Havre Superintendent Kirk Miller, who is chairman of the Montana Board of Public Education, told the Havre school board Tuesday that there is still not enough funding available for schools in Gov.Brian Schweitzer's proposed two-year, $81 million funding increase.
"I would not want to send the message that we think $70 (million) to $80 million is not a move in the right direction," he said today. "I also understand that we're not going to be able to fix everything in one session."
But Miller said about half of the increase the governor proposed is in the amount the state funds per student. Because of declining student enrollment statewide, the state's schools will lose $24 million in funding, even while gaining as the amount of funding per student increases, Miller said.
Miller said the net gain, at best, accounts for inflation and then a 1 percent increase for school district budgets statewide.
"I don't think we should be fooled by that," he said.
What Miller and the education community have advocated is a funding system that takes into account the number of classes and teachers at a school, not the number of students.
Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said this morning that he agrees, and that a joint Senate-House panel is working on such a plan that would take effect a year from now.
"Just because a class loses four or five students doesn't mean it doesn't need the same number of teachers," he said.
Tester acknowledged that everyone in the education community is not satisfied with the level of funding proposed.
"Some of the education community, they want more and I don't think there's more to be had in this budget," he said. "It's far more than we've ever given them in the past. Does it solve the problem? Not entirely. But it's certainly a step in the right direction."
Miller said he worried that the state government is doing the same thing it has done in the past - determining the amount of money available and then fitting that to the needs of school districts. The Supreme Court, he said, wanted the government to determine the need first.
Monday afternoon the House Select Committee on Education unanimously approved what many lawmakers believe to be the keystone of the Legislature's response to the court's ruling, a definition of a quality education. When the bill passed the select committee, it contained many amendments and language from five failed House bills.
"I think it still fulfills the needs" identified by the court, said Tester, who helped guide the bill through the Senate. "I think it still has the same premises in it."
The bill will head to the House floor for further debate.
This is only one piece of the puzzle that the Legislature must fit together to respond to the court's order, but Tester said it's the most important.
In addition, he said he is optimistic that a new funding formula will address the concerns of Miller and the rest of the education community.