HELENA – School officials from districts big and small, from Kalispell to Ekalaka, traveled to Helena to testify Monday for the session’s major school funding bill, which had its first hearing before a House committee.
They urged the House Education Committee to approve Senate Bill 175, saying it helps school districts of all sizes and circumstances deal with the increased financial pressures they’re facing.
“This is the best school funding proposal that I’ve seen in my 20 years of coming to the Legislature,” said Tim Tharp, superintendent of schools in Sunburst and president of the Montana Rural Education Association.
SB175, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, contains a complex overhaul of Montana’s system of state funding for public schools. The state Senate approved the measure six weeks ago, and, with just 17 working days left in the 2013 Legislature, Monday was the first hearing on the bill in the House.
The House panel took no immediate action Monday.
Jones led off the hearing with an overview of the measure, including several amendments that would reduce the bill’s overall cost.
In its current form, SB175 would use oil and gas tax revenues to cut local school property taxes across much of the state. Jones explained Monday that he wants to amend the measure so oil and gas revenue will help freeze those taxes – reducing the cost of the tax reductions by some $15 million.
The other key components of SB175 include:
• Increasing the lump-sum “basic entitlement” that the state pays to each district.
• Taking oil and gas revenue that now goes only to school districts where production occurs and spreading it among adjoining districts that are impacted by the oil and gas development.
• Higher payments to school districts that see substantial growth in students.
• A per-student payment for data systems that schools can develop to help student achievement.
While SB175 had scores of supporters, several people also showed up to oppose it.
Oil and gas counties and Bainville schools, in far northeast Montana, said they want to amend the oil and gas provisions of the bill to more fairly distribute oil and gas proceeds.
Representatives of two environmental groups said it’s unwise to rely too heavily on oil-and-gas revenue to fund schools, and suggested instead that the Legislature create an oil and gas trust fund, and use its revenues to finance education.
And, finally, several people spoke against using money from the bill to finance new “common core” curriculum changes, saying it’s a “national curriculum” that should be resisted. Jones said he wouldn’t oppose removing any reference in the bill to the common core standards.
Yet far more supporters than opponents showed up to testify, with dozens of school officials, parents and school board members saying SB175 is a badly needed boost in state funding for schools.
Ann Hokanson, a school trustee from Harrison, a small town in southwest Montana, said the higher entitlement payment would mean $100,000 more for her district – thus avoiding possible property tax increases for local property owners.
“Maybe Harrison doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the great scheme of things, but in Montana, there are (many) Harrisons … which means there are thousands of students who will benefit from Senate Bill 175,” she said.